My Writers: Robert Caro

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The books are massive, which makes them intimidating. Just glancing at one of the spines, likely wide enough to place a comfortably discernible portrait on it, is enough to tingle up a feeling of exhaustion. And yet one of the things I find most remarkable about Robert Caro’s biographies is the clarity of the writing. There’s a plainspokenness to his writing that makes it approachable, as if a story recounted rather than heavily detailed reportage based on unbelievably exhaustive research. That doesn’t mean the material is simple. Caro locks in on the complexity of lives of people who changed their worlds through sheer will of force.

There is nothing dashed off and no supposition lacking a mound of evidence. And Caro is notorious for his meticulous approach, reworking every last words of manuscripts that swell near to — and sometimes over — one thousand pages. He doesn’t farm out the research, nor does he easily acquiesce to the alterations of editors. Every word is his.

And those words lead the reader expertly, with a constant pull forward. Although Caro is master of the time-honored craft of ending every chapter with a promise for what will come next, he assiduously avoids anxious cliffhangers or other overt manipulations. In Caro’s craft, the pending page is as necessary and as natural as the twinkle of tomorrow.

Caro’s first book was published in 1974. His recent tome was unpacked onto bookstore shelves in 2012. In that multi-decade span, Caro effectively wrote about two men. The earliest biography covered the life and career of Robert Moses, a towering public figure in New York for a sizable chunk of the twentieth century. Four other books — thus far — have traced formative years and political ascendancy of Lyndon B. Johnson, the thirty-seventh President of the United States. Caro was in his forties when the first part of his multi-volume Johnson biography was published. As he’s chipped away at the fifth and probably final volume, the writer has become an octogenarian. Half of Caro’s life has been devoted to the Johnson books. It’s astonishing, speaking to a stalwart sense of mission. And the resulting extended biography is staggering, demonstrating that it is still possible — through dedication, precision, purpose, and artfulness — to create a work that is truly definitive.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

My Writers: Billy Wilder

The Apartment US Half Sheet Linen-backed

Until Woody Allen came along, Billy Wilder had more screenwriting Academy Award nominations to his credit than any other individual. Counting Oscar nominations and wins makes for a faulty metric of excellence, but the implicit message is sound in the case of Wilder. The Austrian emigree to the bizarre wonderland of Hollywood is one of the true greats of U.S. cinema, a man who earned an endless stream of accolades and yet remains somewhat underrated, unlikely to be evoked with the likes of John Ford and Howard Hawks as a defining voice in the medium. He should be considered a true peer of those greats as a director. As a writer, though, I’d argue Wilder was unmatched in his time. When I think of how screenplays are supposed to work, I think of Wilder.

Venerating Wilder in this respect is complicated by the fact that Wilder was almost always a collaborator in the writing process. I.A.L. Diamond is the most famous co-writer of Wilder’s film, but there is a small battalion of others whose names appear next to the director’s in the opening credits, such as Edwin Blum (Stalag 17) and no less than Raymond Chandler (Double Indemnity). But there is an unmistakably unifying quality to the writing in Wilder’s films that can only be reasonably attributed to him. His films are sharp, bleakly funny, cunning, and deeply authentic.

Cameron Crowe’s hefty collection of interviews with Wilder remains one of the best books about filmmaking I’ve ever read. For as much discussion as Wilder rightly devotes to casting, image framing, and other mechanics of directing, it’s clear that the core of his philosophy is locked in on the writing process. The ten rules of filmmaking he provides are almost entirely connected to the screenplay.  In modern cinema, there is no quality that is more rare and endearing than this one, defined perfectly by Wilder: “The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.” As no maxim is more ignored — to the point of supreme irritation — than the one Wilder acknowledges he borrow from his mentor, Ernst Lubitsch: “Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.”

Wiser, more refined cineastes that me have observed that characters in film noir don’t talk like real people, but their banter represents the way people should talk. Wilder triumphed in practically every genre, including film noir. And his pinnacle effort in that subgenre, the phenomenal Double Indemnity, provides insight into what Wilder did better than anyone, before or since. He somehow created dialogue that was recognizably wiser and wittier than most real world discussions, and yet it felt honest and true rather that jaggedly aspirational. That cascade of lines didn’t match how people talked, and yet it did. In Wilder’s words exists the big messy us of the American experience, one he entered into rather than inherited, which likely gave him a keener insight.

There’s one more cinematic storytelling tip that’s worth sharing: “Know where you’re going.” Wilder always did. Of course I was — and am — always eager to follow.

My Writers: Lester Bangs

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When I arrived at college, it took me some time to use the university library for academic purposes. That’s not wholly accurate. I spent an adequate number of hours in that bulky building partaking in endeavors that were associated with assignments, whether researching for papers or claiming a quiet cubby to study for a looming exam. But my strongest memories revolve around the times I stalked the stacks in search of books that would never have made their way into the local library of the small Wisconsin town I called home during my high school years. One of the first tomes I sought out was a compendium of the writing of Lester Bangs.

This was 1988, well before Bangs was immortalized on film in a beautiful performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, but in the wake of him being memorably namechecked in R.E.M.’s monumental “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Bangs, who died in 1982 at the tender age of thirty-three, was already a mythic figure. He famously (or infamously) wrote about rock ‘n’ roll music with an opinionated fervor that was too challenging for Rolling Stone. The venerable magazine’s publisher, Jann Wenner, fired Bangs over a scathing review of a Canned Heat record, which only cemented the writer’s legend.

By the time I picked up the collection of Bangs’s reviews, entitled Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic, I’d already been reading rock reviews with a mortifying intensity for years. Accordingly, I knew the names of many rock writers, mostly in the Rolling Stone stable — Anthony DeCurtis, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh among them — but aside from a couple of artist preferences, I couldn’t identify distinctive traits associated with any of them. They represented a monolithic example of how to write about rock and pop.

Bangs was different, immediately and immeasurably. I disagreed with some of his opinions — sometimes vehemently — but I recognized that they were written with a headlong urgency, a haphazard freedom that could only be indulged by someone with a vivid command of the language. The rock writing I to which I was accustomed was comparatively dutiful and serene. That writing was, in short, antithetical to the raucous rebellion of rock ‘n’ roll itself. Bangs was different. He channeled the tense exuberance of the music he loved and transformed it into words on a page. Other writers might have been better at describing how a song sounded, but Bangs was peerless in describing how it felt. Other writers strained to make rock ‘n’ roll into art. Bangs knew it was better, brighter, rawer, realer if the music was met as something more primal.

Some writers I emulate and some I adore. Bangs is one of those writers who I simply stare at his words, agog that the mechanics of assembling ideas and tapping them onto a page can be accomplished in quite that manner. I could never do that. I’m glad someone could.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

My Writers: Carl Hiaasen

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Image taken, as always, from Library Thing.

I lived in Florida for six years. Before I got there, Carl Hiaasen acquainted me with the haphazard charms of the Sunshine State. More precisely, he sketched out just how much craziness resided on that over-baked peninsula.

As was the case with many of the authors whose wares I first sampled in the nineteen-nineties, I arrived at Hiaasen because of the movies. With some regularity, I bought novels that the entertainment press informed me were being adapted in high-profile films. I liked having the comparison at the ready when it came time to deliver my movie review, even if most of those exercises in criticism were mostly being delivered to friends over the phone or this new-fangled communication method called electronic mail.

Hiaasen’s 1993 novel, Strip Tease, was being made in a movie that borrowed the name but oddly omitted the space. Striptease was preemptively famous — or maybe a little infamous — because the lead role, a stripper named Erin Grant, had been bestowed upon Demi Moore, who got a dump truck full of money backed up to her house in exhange from the promise of doffing her top. As intended, that built some buzz around the project. Thankfully, enough of the chatter took pains to insist to the potentially interested that Hiaasen’s novel was quite good.

The movie proved to be a bust at the box office — and pretty lousy — but the appreciative assessments of the novel were spot on. Strip Tease is sharp, funny, slyly insightful, and plotted with purposeful expertise. It reads like a classic Elmore Leonard crime novel with a loonier edge. It’s hard to scrape together grander praise.

I return to Hiaasen’s novels from time to time after that, always engaged and amused. And, almost with fail, my perception of his native Florida was solidified with every page. I was certain the state was colorful, off-kilter, and many a little dangerous, if only because just enough people there operated as if  the very concept of consequences didn’t cross the border from neighboring states. Hiaasen’s investigative takedown of the Disney corporation, Team Rodent, compounds this thesis while showing off his reporter’s chops from his formative days at Cocoa Today and his longtime day job at the Miami Herald.

If the creative vision of Hiaasen didn’t quite match up with my personal experience in Florida, it’s probably for the best. But maybe his bracing assessment of his fellow well-tanned citizens helped me properly prepare for my days there, recalibrating the strangely sensational into comparative acceptable following my time tracing the exploits of those characters bounding across the page.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

My Writers: Charles P. Pierce

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Given the endless procession of freshly minted atrocities on the front pages of credible newspapers, it’s tempting to invoke the apocryphal Chinese curse that bestowed the condemnation of “interesting times.” But we’ve crossed well beyond that battle-scarred region. We’ve moved on to a swirling abomination that can only be thought of as “exhausting times.” Being engaged in the current political stories that flash and pop with the frantic urgency of an overloading pinball machine is an invitation to madness, or at least a version of unwanted enlightening that is particularly soul-crushing.

None of these examples of egregious abdication of sensible civic duty are entirely new, mind you. The current occupant of the White House is uniquely inept, grotesquely immoral human being, but he’s more an extension of the corruption that has beset our politics than a frothing polyp that arrived out of nowhere. As proof, I offer up some words that were penned approximately four years ago, when a certain serial sex offender and bafflingly incompetent real estate developer was mainly occupied with handing out junior capitalism challenges to Gary Busey and Stephen Baldwin:

“We have elected an ungovernable collection of snake-handlers, Bible-bangers, ignorami, bagmen and outright frauds, a collection so ungovernable that it insists the nation be ungovernable, too….We have elected a national legislature in which the true power resides in a cabal of vandals, a nihilistic brigade….We looked at our great legacy of self-government and we handed ourselves over to the reign of morons.”

I’d say those words still carry the harsh sting of pertinence. They were penned by Charles P. Pierce, who has held down the politics page of Esquire magazine’s website since the autumn of 2011.

As I have glumly surveyed the most grievous infractions against kind-hearted societal progress in recent years — the muddled thinking of one political party transformed into crackpot lunacy, a happenstance evidently catalyzed by the duly elected elevation to the highest office in the land of a man with darker skin than they preferred — the ferocious, intelligent, barbed language of Pierce has been my salve.

Whether opining on the crimes against decency perpetrated by those at the federal level or shrewdly honing in on the more shrouded shenanigans happening in statehouses across the land, Pierce has a way of spinning outrage into caustically funny testimony that is also intellectually sound enough to stand up in the most uptight court of law. (In that, Pierce is miles ahead of the superficially similar Matt Taibbi, who deploys his colorful insults as a way of obscuring an indifference to underlying knowledge.) Pierce is all too happy to pile on the worst transgressors (he routinely refers to Scott Walker, the misbegotten governor of my home state as “the goggle-eyed homunculus hired by Koch Industries to manage their Midwest subsidiary formerly known as the state of Wisconsin”), but the virulent verbosity is always partnered with a convincing argument.

Today, Pierce obviously devoted a robust spread of digital column inches to the jaw-dropping dismissal of FBI Director James Comey, complete with the requisite comparisons to the malevolent machinations of Richard Nixon, whose is surely being replaced as the poster child for executive brach corruption. But Pierce also somehow found the emotional fortitude to write about the chicanery around the U.S. Census office, the ongoing suppression of the news media, and the abject dishonesty of Mike Pence (perfectly described by Pierce as “a remarkable piece of smarm sculpture”).

All of these missives were admittedly mere Band-Aids on a wound that is tearing wider every last day. (Thankfully, intrepid reporters at The New York Times and other major media outlets are doing their damnedest to be the trauma surgeons the nation needs right now.) Even so, I appreciate Pierce’s no-nonsense commitment to continuing to apply the treatment. There’s only so much outrage I can handle without feeling like theres some kindred, agitated souls out there. I value the like-minded spirit of a writer who’s surveying the same attempted decimation of the republic and refuses to do so without raising a helluva racket.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

My Writers: Ann Beattie

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I have a foolish aversion to short stories. I’m perplexed about its origins. It may stem from the fact that my time chipping away at an undergraduate English major forever associated the form with the toil of assigned text. (I swear “Hills Like White Elephants” was on the syllabus of every third class I took.) I also worry that I have some strange, snobbish guilt that triggers a lurking, unshakable sense that I should be working on a weightier novel when I’m reading a short story, under the so-many-books-so-little-time provision of life as a consumer of written fiction.

Ann Beattie is one of the writers who decisively demonstrates the shortsightedness of my knee-jerk rejection of the form. Although she’s written enough novels to take of a sizable portion of a shelf, it’s her short stories that totally transfix. They are about incident more than plot, the rippling of emotion more than the shock of the unexpected twist. Beattie captures people moving through mundane lives and illuminates the triumph and heartbreak of simply existing. I don’t know that I could recount the specific happenings of any of her stories, rattling off the details the link into one another. But I can easily recapture the feel of reading them, mostly informed by the sense I’m eavesdropping on individuals who have entire histories I will never know and futures I won’t see.

In her attentiveness to the intricacies of life — the moments that can easily be overlooked but often perplexingly stick in the memory more firmly that the grander tumult — Beattie reminds me of Anne Tyler, the first author who taught me that a story doesn’t need to have a big, obvious hook to be important and meaningful, that fiction’s strength is less in its invention than in its truthfulness. Beattie reminds me that it doesn’t take pages upon pages upon pages to achieve that honesty. Sometimes a few words will do.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

My Writers: Chris Claremont

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Though all of my instincts — meticulously steeped in self-consciousness and boomeranging snobbery — prod me to reserve this particular feature for scribes who convey a veneer of intellectual credibility to my reading selections, there are times when I am compelled that many of the most formative writers in my life primarily tapped out words for comic book adventures. When I was rolling my eyes at whatever English class drudgery I was assigned (my school wasn’t astute enough to realize that maybe teenagers would respond positively to the likes of Kurt Vonnegut and J.D. Salinger), I was rushing eagerly back the colorful exploits of superhumans in spandex suits, devouring every last mellifluous word. And it’s probably reasonable to say that one of the first comic book writers whose name locked into my brain as a titan of his craft was Chris Claremont.

Admittedly, my devotion to Claremont was partially due to the fact that he had a clear creative identity within Marvel Comics, my publisher of choice. He wrote The Uncanny X-Men, which meant he was in charge of the mutants. I started reading his comics right at the point those characters began an astounding rise in popularity. Once little more than a fringe subset within the Marvel Universe that gave the publisher’s foundational writer Stan Lee the chance to make an admirable arguments condemning bigotry, the characters all but took over in the nineteen-eighties, presumably in part because the aging of the readership base meant their were a few more outcast teenagers who found useful avatars in the residents of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.

There was probably some timely happenstance to the rise of the mutants, but surely some of it could also be ascribed to Claremont’s approach to the characters. He had a gift for enlivening melodrama, accentuating the woes of the tragically different heroes and grandly carrying them from one wrenching setback to another. He tilted toward the sort of anguished philosophies that could fill a Mead notebook with bad high school poetry and paced the interpersonal adventures with the impeccable timing of the most seasoned soap opera scripters. It was silly and florid and, to my young eyes, flatly perfect.

As the X-Men grew in popularity, so did Marvel’s desire to make sure every slot of the the spinner rack was stocked with a tie-in title. At least initially, Claremont wrote most of the film, engaging in arguably the most robust world-building in that particular fictional universe since the heyday of Lee’s collaboration with artist Jack Kirby. The sprawl did Claremont no favors, and eventually keeping tracking of everything became exhausting to me as a reader. But I still remember those heady days when keeping up with the mutants was manageable and consistently exciting.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.