Jul 20, 2008

Richard Ford

(cross-posted, of course. many thanks if you're still checking this page.)

Some thoughts on the man who just might be America's greatest living writer.

My reading habits tend to the obsessive. I start and fail to finish a lot of books, but when I find an author whose work hits me at that magic moment where the quality of the work and the resonance of what it says converge, I seek out all I can find. Such has been the case lately with Richard Ford.

I've yet to tackle any of his novels, owing mostly to the fact that I tend to prefer short stories these days. Lucky for me, the man is an absolute master of the short form.

Like Raymond Carver -- with whom Ford has often been compared (the two were contemporaries) -- he tells stories of regular people in regular situations. In doing so he reveals the pain, grace, nobility, and horror of life itself -- not life as one would perhaps like it to be lived. He sees things for what they are: extraordinary in many ways, provided one is willing to uncover it.

The thing that's weird for me is that Ford is still very much alive, and still working. For whatever reason, I don't read a lot of contemporary authors.

The advantage to this is that I can more or less study him in real time, see what he's up to these days and compare it to the things I've gleaned from his earlier work. One such opportunity arose with a curious piece he recently wrote for the Wall Street Journal, called "The Myth of Summer". Here's a particularly fine sample:

From where I stand I can see down through the trees and across the property line to our neighbors' new summer cottage, which is all but finished, with most of the work going on inside. The sounds of hammers and saws scarcely interrupt the quiet that the breeze has brought in from the south and off the bay that provides our house and our neighbors' house their lovely views. One man there, a young carpenter wearing a carpenter's apron and holding a claw hammer, has stopped to watch the goings-on here on our side. He waves his hammer at me in a gesture meant to be genial. I wave back. We all know what we know. I decide I might take a walk now, then later think about lunch.

The ability to write that well is a rare thing, and so it's a surprise to me that Ford isn't more popular than he is. Unless he really is quite popular and I just don't realize it. Either way, I'm here to recommend his work.

More on Ford here ("on the work of writing") and here (a Salon interview).

Also, he penned an absolutely amazing piece about New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. If you click just one link from this page, make it this one.

Apr 28, 2008

cross-posted with my Slant Six blog...

I'm a huge fan of the mystery writer Ross Macdonald. Like better-known greats such as Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler, Macdonald had an unmistakable gift for voice and tone.

To the extent that he's famous, it's for his Lew Archer books -- a series of gritty yet surprisingly elegant and philosophical tales of love and corruption set against the backdrop of southern California in the mid-century. One of these -- The Moving Target -- was turned into a Paul Newman vehicle (as Harper).

Today I plucked his novel Blue City (an early, pre-Archer work) from my shelf and started reading. The opening lines floored me:

All the time you've been away from a town where you lived when you were a kid, you think about it and talk about it as if the air there were sweeter in the nostrils than other air. When you meet a man from that town you feel a kind of brotherhood with him, till the talk runs down and you can't remember any more names.

I'm a big believer in having a sense of place, an idea of the value of those places in which you've spent any time. I think each of them becomes a part of you, and I think it's important to recognize that fact and apply it to your work whenever possible. Macdonald's words strike a chord on that level. They read to me as not only a careful observation of human tendency but also a challenge to the reader to consider his or her own roots, and wonder what it might be like to remember and revisit them.

Mar 6, 2008

This is what the hell is up: The National performing Mistaken For Strangers. One of the best bands around performing one of their best songs, and flawlessly.

Also featuring some of the finest lyrics I've ever read:

Well you wouldn't want an angel watching over/Surprise, surprise, they wouldn't wanna watch/Another unelegant innocent fall/Into the unmagnificent lives of adults

Feb 25, 2008

on editing

note: this is cross-posted with my blog at Slant Six

raymond carver

A good editor might make your writing. A bad editor will ruin it.

Raymond Carver has long been one of my favorite writers. His terse, emotionally complex prose isn't to everyone's taste, but I've found it to mine. Recent revelations about his relationship with his editor, Gordon Lish, make me wonder just who it is I've been appreciating all these years.

The opening lines of his classic What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, in particular, have always grabbed me and held on tight:

My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.

The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin. Sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind the sink. There were Mel and me and his second wife, Teresa—Terri, we called her—and my wife, Laura. We lived in Albuquerque then. But we were all from somewhere else.

It's one of the most fascinating opening passages I've ever read, saying as it does so much with so little. But as it turns out, Carver's original version was something quite different. Titled Beginners, it read like so:

My friend Herb McGinnis, a cardiologist, was talking. The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin. It was Saturday afternoon. Sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind the sink. There were Herb and I and his second wife, Teresa—Terri, we called her—and my wife, Laura. We lived in Albuquerque, but we were all from somewhere else.

You can see a side-by-side comparison of the whole story here. You can learn more about the relationship between Carver and Lish here.

Lish seems to have been the kind of editor every writer hates: heavy-handed and prone to not only rewriting but inserting passages of his own. And yet I can't -- if I'm being honest -- deny that he improved the work in significant ways.

It points out just how difficult it can be to bring written material to print. The creator, naturally, has a huge stake in what's being said. But there's no denying that an engaged, thoughtful set of outside eyes can take something good and push it to greatness. Or, more often, take something middling and make it good.

The keys to making the process work are trust and communication. It will not work without both, and the sad fact is that there are far more bad editors out there than good ones. The right mix is delicate and hard to come by, but it's worth looking.

Feb 14, 2008

happy love day

If you're stuck for that last minute gift, there are some surprisingly great e-cards over at the Kate Spade site. E-cards are usually hella lame, but not in this case.

Also, recent updates to the Slant SIx blog include a look at what Hillary Clinton vs. Barack Obama means for creative folks. Then later today I'm planning on putting up a post about the new Shelby Lynne album. I'll cross-post that here I think, but in the meantime you should absolutely check that album out.

Feb 5, 2008

Jan 14, 2008

The This Divided State guys have launched the website for their new film, Killer at Large. Check it out here.

I had a nice lunch with Bryan and Steve while they were working on this, and the discussion was lively and enlightening. My money's on this one being well worth your time.
New York magazine has a quick but pithy Q&A with David Mamet, and I highly recommend it. Not the least of the reasons being for this exchange:

You also directed a Ford commercial. Why?
I did it for the money. Why do you think I did it?

And you needed the money that badly?
Well, it’s nice to have, because you can buy things with it.

So the whole business of “selling out,” you think it’s bullshit?
No, of course it’s not bullshit. One is faced with that every day. All of us. What’s a moral choice, what’s not a moral choice, and so forth. Somebody even more pedantic than I might say that that’s the whole question of drama: How does one make a moral decision? And further, that a moral decision is not the choice between wrong and right—that’s easy—but between two wrongs.
Mamet's a true iconoclast, and one of the most insightful writers working today. His next film, Redbelt, takes a look inside the world of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) and will, if history is any guide, be fully awesome.

(I cross-posted this, mostly, with my Slant Six blog, which you should all be reading and linking and passing around)

Jan 9, 2008

Those of you who have known and/or read me for the past 3-4 years know that I'm a veteran when it comes to writing about the presidential primary process. Crazy as it sounds, I actually got paid to do it last time (albeit not much). I correctly predicted Howard Dean's rise (though not his fall) and I correctly predicted Wesley Clark's entry into the race (though not his ineffectiveness).

I've been able to read the tea leaves pretty well. I don't necessarily do a better job than any other observer, but I think it's safe to say I do at least as well.

So now that I've digested the Iowa and New Hampshire results, here are two things to take to the bank. They might be the last things I have to say about politics for a long time.

1. Clinton will get the nomination.
2. She will lose to whoever the Republicans send up in the general election.

Politics lag behind business. What people want out of products and services doesn't match up to what they want out of candidates. I'm not sure why that is, but it definitely is.

In business, the the thing is to be exceptional. Be fresh, be new, be better.

In politics the exact opposite is true.

I don't believe this downward march is endless. But I don't think, unfortunately, that we can yet see the finish line.

Also: I desperately want to be wrong, and will sing it from the hilltops if I am.