Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

I have just finished reading my second favorite novel that takes place in and around an English-speaking newspaper abroad. My favorite book of this sort is The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson, a book that follows Paul Kemp to Puerto Rico to work for the newspaper in that tropical environment of the late 1950s.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman is a novel (though I had to look at the cover after I'd read the first two chapters just to make sure) structured as short stories with characters that work for, or have some dealings with a newspaper based in Rome. In some chapters the characters overlap, in some they don't. When they do, it almost acts as a jump in a newspaper, where the story is picked up somewhere further along. Between each chapter is a short interlude in italics in which the back story of the paper and its founder, Cyrus Ott, is chronicled. These shorter sections begin in 1953 and take us to 2007.

The structure of the book is very intriguing for me. I once planned the same sort of book with stories and characters centered around a rural Tennessee church, to be titled Scenes in Colored Glass. Only one story, "Dominic," exists and it was written more than a decade ago. This book may prompt me to look back into that project.

I like this book. I like newspapers. The novel is a sort of love song to the industry, though Rachman doesn't pull any punches. He admits that newspaper readership and the very quality of content is in decline, but he can't seem to help himself.
My family is a newspaper family. My great-grandfather, great-uncle, grandfather and father all worked for the same paper, The Commercial Appeal. I was discouraged from it at an early age. My father hated working there and I heard nothing but ill about the business and the place day in and day out. As a result, I didn't go into the business. Not then, anyway. Had I been encouraged, I'm sure I would have, it would have only been natural. Even now, as a freelance writer, the work feels natural.

I've always had more of a romantic than realistic notion of newsrooms. I know my idea of what one is, or should be, is purely  based on movies and television shows, but that's fine. I like that vision. I can remember the "old building" that housed The Commercial Appeal when I was a kid and I'd go to work with my father. It was an old Ford factory and the third-floor newsroom had high ceilings with tracks and tubes suspended overhead, concrete floor, tall windows and was littered with paper and noise. That's where it all stems from, this idea of mine that a newsroom is a place where something is made. It was a factory!

It's not that way anymore. I was up on the third floor of The Commercial Appeal just last week. It's just not like it used to be ... I'll leave it at that for now.

I still like movies about newspapers, and novels. It's the romantic in me, the fallow strands of DNA in my makeup from the early part of last century when men and women were covered in ink, characters, news and cigarette ash. When you could get a beer at the lunch counter on the ground floor and nobody left until the day's paper was put to bed. And then it was with a toast and an eagerness for another day.

Some of this is captured in The Imperfectionists. It's good to have these stories, even if they are couched against the weakening backdrop of the industry. Rachman is a storyteller, a newspaperman and a chronicler of what the industry was and what it has become.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Southern College of Watchmaking

While writing a small business story for The Commercial Appeal on a new watch repair shop a couple of months ago, a source casually mentioned having gone to the Southern College of Watchmaking back in the late 1940s. I'm a lifelong Memphian and have heard of many institutions, both still with us and those long gone, but I'd never even heard of this school.

Wanting to learn more about it, I decided it was a worthy subject for the Hidden Memphis series I've been writing for The CA. Up until now, I've written the series about people and this would be the first place written about. What I found was that, even when researching a brick-and-mortar building, it's the people involved who make the story.

The school was a lot more difficult to research than I'd expected, there just isn't much information out there about it. The signs pointed me to Raleigh, the Memphis & Shelby County Room at the library, the Shelby County Archives at Shelby Farms and phone calls around town and up to Paducah, KY.

The story ran in yesterday's paper and I think it turned out nicely. Mike Maple did a great job with the photos, as usual.

There were a couple of interesting details that were left, or cut, out. The school closed in 1953 once the GIs had pretty much all graduated and their GI Bill money went away with them. The funding just dried up. However, the funding to the school was cut before that when it was found that the founder of the school, Forrest Osborne, had begun a second business, Southern Tool & Supply Co., to buy and sell tools and parts to the students. Money was given by the government to Osborne to do so, but he was selling the goods at 10% over retail, which was in violation of his contract. Once the government pulled funding, making a hefty profit was more difficult to do.

I heard of this reason from two separate sources and I put it in my story. Then I took it out. Then I put it back in. My editor and I finally decided that, with no conviction or even an official accusation, it was best left out.

The other little bit that I never did put in the story, but that I heard, again, from those two sources, was that when Osborne was in his fatal car crash on N. Parkway in February of 1950, he was with someone he shouldn't have been, an employee of the school. There was no reason for that to be in the story, so I left it out.

When I begin these Hidden Memphis pieces, I never know where they'll lead me or who I'll wind up talking with. It's a big part of what I love about doing them. Thanks to everyone who helped on this story and to all of you who read it.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

(Nearly) The End

It seemed to him that all his life he had followed the ideals that other people, by their words or their writings, had instilled into him, and never the desires of his own heart. Always his course had been swayed by what he thought he should do and never by what he wanted with his whole soul to do. He put all that aside now with a gesture of impatience. He had lived always in the future, and the present always, always had slipped through his fingers. His ideals? He thought of his desire to make a design, intricate and beautiful, out of the myriad, meaningless facts of life: had he not seen also that the simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children, and died, was likewise the most perfect? It might be that to surrender to happiness was to accept defeat, but it was a defeat better than many victories.

The passage is from W. Somerset Maugham's novel Of Human Bondage, near the ending; the last page, in fact. Maugham was a prolific writer who wrote novels, short stories, travel essays and plays in the beginning of the 20th century, and a literary hero of mine.

In the past few years I've written a few hundred journalistic stories and columns, a handful of short stories, countless blog posts and, as of last night, two novels. I want to make it clear that both of the novels are only in their very early first draft stages. I've always written short stories throughout my adult life but never thought I'd be able to handle the marathon effort that is novel writing until the summer of 2009 when on a road trip with my family, the perfect time to think as the miles roll by. At that time I had two short stories that I couldn't help but see as overlapping, so I overlapped them and went from there with the goal of finishing the draft by the time I turned 40 a year later. I did that with a couple of months to spare.

The idea then was, of course, to revise, revise, revise that draft. But I wrote another short story that I felt had themes and characters I wanted to expand on, and when that story won the Memphis Magazine fiction contest, I figured I should ride that momentum. And that finished draft, with the working title The Simplest Pattern (from the passage above), was wrapped up last night to a long sigh, a cigar and the gift of a bottle of wine from Kristy and Andria.

It's a great feeling to finish a project like that, to cross the finish line of such a marathon. Now begins the work, of course. It's nowhere near finished, but it's so good to have a beginning page and an ending page and 324 pages in between. And now begins the fun - the revising, the moving around, the deconstruction and rebuilding. The ingredients are all there and I just need to get my hands into them and mix it up a bit. I'm not the best editor when it comes to cutting, but I can add a spoonful more of this and a dash more of that like nobody's business. Coming in at 69,108 words, I have no doubt I'll be able to whittle it down to 75,000 without even blinking.

It's not a bibliography the length of Maugham's, of course, it's only two stacks of papers on my desk, two files in my computer. But they're my stacks of paper and I intend to make them the best I possibly can.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Objects of Beauty

I wanted to read Steve Martin's An Object of Beauty when I first heard it would be published. I've always been a fan of his short pieces and really enjoyed his first novel, Shopgirl. I love his second, The Pleasure of My Company. An Object of Beauty is really good, though not quite up to level of The Pleasure of My Company, I think.

For various reasons, I didn't get around to reading the new one until this last week and by then I really wanted to because of the book I'm working on. It has elements of the art world in it and I've realized as I'm writing that I just don't know enough to make it believable, at least not to me. So reading Martin's novel was research for me, which made reading it difficult because I kept wanting to stop reading to write, or at least jot down some notes. I'm not plagiarizing ... I don't think, just thinking as I read along and ideas come to me, or names of artists are mentioned that I want to research further.

An Object of Beauty is the story of Lacey Yeager, an ambitious up-and-comer in the art world of Manhattan. That world is a self-contained ecosystem where all the players - from the dealers to the artists to the collectors to the journalists - know each other, who owns what and who wants to sell what. The only question in the mix is for how much a piece will sell, although prices seemed to be growing at every turn.

The action takes place over many years, but mostly in the art boom of the late 1990s when there was no way to not make money by procuring and selling. A young artist could make a piece of art one day, put it in a gallery the next and have enough money to live on for a year by the end of the weekend. Throughout the book there is the discussion of the modern masters versus the new kids of contemporary and minimalist art, and just what art is and what makes it valuable, whether it's time and distance or hype and youth.

It's really a fascinating book in that respect. Martin knows his shit when it comes to art (good and bad) and how it moves around the globe and in and out of fashion and possession. That knowledge became a main reason for me to read and practically study it.

Martin also knows people and relationships, it's what makes something like The Pleasure of My Company so very good. And his new one is good in that respect as well, but maybe not quite as good. Or perhaps it's the fact that there really isn't a character here to feel empathetic towards. The one character I found myself rooting for was the one I expected to like the least when he first entered the story.

The book is written in an interesting way because there is a first person narrative, but that narrator, Daniel Chester French Franks, is not present for most of what goes on. So there will be a chapter with two characters who are not the narrator and then in the following chapter, the narrator will say that he had lunch with Lacey Yeager and she relayed all of the details of the previous chapter. At the end of Chapter 1, in fact, Daniel intriguingly explains:

I will tell you her story from my own recollections, from conversations I conducted with those around her, and, alas, from gossip: thank God the page is not a courtroom. If you occasionally wonder how I know about some of the events I describe in this book, I don't. I have found that - just as in real life - imagination sometimes has to stand in for experience.

The collectors in An Object of Beauty of strange, eccentric creatures. I've been interested in collectors lately as I've also recently read The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession by Allison Hoover Bartlett. It's the true story of John Gilkey, a rare book thief who became infamous and something of a celebrity in that world of rare book collecting in the 1980s. Bartlett probes that world and gets into the heads of collectors, of why they do it. It's a near-obsessive compunction they have to own a book or an author.

In discussing this with my sister, Elizabeth, she suggested I watch Herb & Dorothy, a documentary about a couple in New York who, although one a civil servant and the other a librarian, managed to amass one of the largest and most important collections of contemporary and minimalist art anywhere. I streamed it immediately on NetFlix and was fascinated by these two people. They live in a tiny, rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan and have, for years, simply bought what and who they liked. And I think that was the key for them, they got to know the artists and admired them, and the artists seem to feel the same for them. Herb and Dorothy Vogel eventually donated all of their pieces to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. It took five moving trucks to move all 4,000+ pieces from New York.

I think I can see it. I wouldn't collect just anything, no snow globes or Hummel figurines, but certainly rare books or artwork. The case is made in Bartlett's book that a first edition brings the collector only a step or two away from the author. It's that game of degrees of separation. I think a painting or drawing is an even narrower gap. When you hold a painting, you're looking at something the artist touched, something actually handled and worried over by that person.

I have a lot of books, and I have a few paintings, but now I'm thinking that maybe I need some more.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

For Sale: Ideas

When I was a kid, drawing was probably the number one past time for my sisters and me in our house. My father is an artist and had all of the supplies at hand, all we had to do was grab a stack of paper, a few different shades of pencils, some pastels, charcoal, an eraser that looked like Silly Putty ... whatever we thought we might need. Supplies were never the problem for me, ideas were. I would sit at the table with all of these tools spread in front of me and just stare off into space. "What should I draw?" I would ask. I'd look around the room or try to imagine a scene, yet felt any idea was forced and, therefore, I was uninspired. Perhaps this is why I never developed the skill.

Writing is different. Ideas aren't a hangup for me when I have a pencil and lined paper in hand (we're talking about fiction here, column and story ledes are a whole other matter). Now, I'm not saying all ideas are particularly good, or that they are necessarily worthy of pursuit, just that there has never been a kink in that particular creative hose.

The problem I do have, and this is new for me, is when I come up with an idea that is good, and probably much more marketable than anything else I've written, but I just don't want to write it. I've got a couple of ideas now - one is for a young adult series that involves some fantasy and passing through portals and such, and the other is science fiction and may work better as a script. These are two genres that I simply have no interest in, not enough to sit and write tens of thousands of words on them anyway.

Are ideas salable? Is there some sort of Cogitation Craigslist out there? Because I really like these ideas and would love to see them written, just not by me. So if you find yourself sitting in front of that blank page with no good young adult fantasy or science fiction ideas, send me your credit card info and they're yours. Cheap.