Friday, January 11, 2019

Indie Spotlight: Watch TV Like an Author - Jennifer Spiegel



Jennifer Spiegel is no stranger to TNBBC. In fact, she may actually be the most frequent author contributor here on the blog, for which we are incredibly appreciative. 

Back in November, she self published her novel  And So We Die, Having First Slept. And today she's here sharing an essay on how much she digs.... TV.....










Watching TV Like A Writer*

I love TV.

I may need to justify my TV habit, my love affair, which it is. Nightly, when the kids are down, my husband and I—shamelessly—make our way to the big, brown couch in front of the big screen. He brings over his ubiquitous bowl of Frosted Shredded Wheat and raisins (why, oh, why did I fail to invest in raisins?). Sometimes I wear my purple socks with paw prints on the bottom for traction. We call our stinky dog into the room. And then, then, for one hour only, we watch TV.

 It just seems so—I don’t know—gauche?

I’m going to tell you a little story. It’s embarrassing.

I grew up with parents who watched Primetime TV. Like every night. My skinny-ass dad pulled out this black goblet from the kitchen cupboard, filled it with ice cream, and settled in for a night with my mom, miscellaneous pets, and the Idiot Box. Reading this now, I’m like, Oh No. I turned into my parents.

As a teenager, I couldn’t wait to get my nouveau-independent, brie-eating, book-reading self out of there, straight into the halls of Academia, where I could get on with the scholarly life. Always a dork, I didn’t dream of being a supermodel. I dreamt of Nabokov, Roth, Brontë. While I never stopped shaving and I never joined a Kill-Your-Television Hate Group, I did ban most TV-watching for years, making exceptions here and there.

But, by the new millennium, single-womaned out, I succumbed. There was a brief, dark time in which I watched “The Bachelor”—alone, in my thirties, with my now-dead cats, prior to hitting up e-harmony with a fake name (Jennifer Jacaranda). I had thought I was done with self-inflicted psychosis when I had stopped binging-and-purging in the nineties, but apparently not. I got a grip—though months had passed—and I turned it off, with a kiss-my-ass swivel and a clash-bang-boom.

Screw That Reality TV!

TV-tainted, I swore I’d never relapse again.

The rest of that decade is a hazy blur. I know that, somehow or other, I got married to another hater, had kids, read a book by Donna Tartt (seriously, this is all I remember), saw one doctor about removing varicose veins but didn’t follow up, and began—not without a measure of indignity—watching “Lost” with my husband.

But the crazy part is that TV seemed okay now, even among us faux-intellectuals. No one was ashamed anymore. TV was cool. Forty was the new thirty, and TV was the new novel? Getting old wasn’t that bad. Was there a TV Renaissance happening? Were we on the brink, with “Lost,” of Literary TV?

There I was, all highfalutin about character development (Sawyer and his heart of gold) and the combo of a backstory (I don’t remember it) with a current story (the Others!), along with the beauty of this story confinement in terms of time and place, et al.

Well, this tale ends badly, I’m afraid.

As you know, “Lost” went south with its craven ending (and the Smoke Monster). I still can’t talk about it. That grand finale—rife with McGuffins, a Deus ex Machina or two, and red herrings galore—killed me, like, religiously. Part of me died. I mean, by now, I was already in the throes of pretending I was a real writer—and I wanted “Lost” to work. I wanted it so badly. I wanted narrative success, not unlike a sinner craving redemption. With each show’s offering of clues and with climactic tension building, my hopes were high. My disbelief was so suspended that I was utterly convinced in the Dharma Initiative and All. But that conclusion was so unbearably lousy, so disappointing, so theoretically unsound, that I turned off the television for another couple of years. My hands still stained with the sin of Bad TV, I was in need of cleansing (not to be dramatic or anything). The TV stayed off.

Till the Renaissance was in full-swing.

And that was when the TV was declared a source of marital together-time, a discussion piece, a happy ritual. However, I needed it to somehow benefit my writing too. I then started my Big Project: Watching TV Like A Writer.

We discovered gold in the Renaissance. “The Office” was a gift. We only began watching when it was over.

And now a crash-course in what I look for . . .

Veracity/Emotional Truth: I am ever-conscious of authenticity. It’s a literary habit, yeah?

It was the appeal of “The Office.” The absurdity of the real. The side glances. The cast of nuts in our lives. The ordinary setting. The I Am A Nut Too-ness of it. The “Breaking of the Fourth Wall,” if done in a particular way, draws our attention to what is and isn’t real, to artifice. When Michael (or Leslie in “Parks and Recreation”) addresses the audience, the audience is asked to be active, not passive, to note the absurdity of the moment, to see it for what it is.

But it can be even larger than that. It can speak of the human experience. I might turn to “Better Call Saul” because I am perpetually blown away by strange human ministrations in the scenarios. It’s a quiet show, you know? One just watches Jimmy live out a breathtaking humanity that almost embarrasses the viewer with its scrutiny but also evokes empathy. It speaks to what it means to be human.

I often think of certain odd moments in “Saul.” One thing I really love about that show is how it will dwell in the moment. It will linger. TV (and other mediums) often doesn’t let the individual moment sink in before racing onto the next, maybe more exciting, moment. “Saul” savors such times, and I think writers might learn much about the ravishing or devastating or colorful effect of minutia. Watch this scene. There are many, many others like it. “Saul” dwells. Should writers do the same?

Character Development: This is really hard for TV, I think. It’s a plot-centric medium, yeah? Built to be an After-Dinner Drink, following the long, hard day. Characters on TV, for the most part, have always been stable. Reliable. We could count on Lucy to be Lucy. (Laverne to be Laverne!) Which is why we might make a case that there’s a TV Renaissance going on. Characters have the potential to develop as at least some shows get novelistic. Tony Soprano of “The Sopranos” goes into therapy, and it affects his behavior. Walter White of “Breaking Bad” transforms over the course of several years, making the phrase breaking bad meaningful. The direction of the plot hinges on character development.

(Side note: This is why I’m done with “The Walking Dead.” Rick gone, protagonist no longer on any kind of character-trajectory: The show is dead to me.)

The Good Detail: This, too, is maybe novel in television, because formulaic recipes have proven so successful. But how great is it that the family unit in “Breaking Bad” consists of a high school chemistry teacher, a pretty unlikeable mom, and a kid with cerebral palsy? How great is it that Jimmy’s brother in “Better Call Saul” is cra-cra and demands that cellphones are put in the mailbox? These are great not because of the eye-popping weirdness, but because they’re not formulaic and they’re painfully true. That’s the stuff of my life, your life. We’re the chemistry teachers, the ones with the crazy brother (or maybe we are the crazy brother).

Production Values That Are Probably Equivalent to Language: Well, yes. I listen for dialogue. But there are other kinds of language. I’m thinking of Nina Simone at the end of the first season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” or the use of the color red in the show. I’m thinking of the stylized settings and clothes from “Mad Men,” “Peaky Blinders” maybe (watch this!), and even early “Walking Dead.” I think, personally, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is the best in making a beautiful language out of its production values. Ouch--this is so great. I find it utterly chilling, nearly perfect.

Bad Guys: They need to be fully human, right? Tony Soprano and Walter White were bad guys who were also good guys. Remember Tony’s weird soft-spot for animals? Sometimes, there are great bad guys roaming the sets of so-so shows. I loved Boyd Crowder on “Justified.” (That show was a fave, though I’m not totally sure I can make a big case for it.) “Ozark,” a newbie, seems to have a great mix of complex characters.

Endings: I’m possibly over-sensitive about endings. I have a thing for closure. There is little I like better that a seven-year commitment to a television show with resolution at the end (this is hyperbole.) Resolution can be in different forms. I’ll try to avoid spoilers. There are two kinds of satisfying endings.

First, the This-Is-The-Way-It-Goes end of “Breaking Bad,” which was close to flawlessness. What true thing will follow these other true things? That is the lovely path of “Breaking Bad.” A variation of this kind of end is the Hate-It-Love-It End of “The Sopranos,” which requires the viewer to ponder the inevitable. That show ended with the lingering presence of the Inevitable.

Second, there is the metaphoric, Somehow-This-Totally-Works End. “Mad Men” did it. It’s right. It’s philosophic, symbolic. It’s probably—because everything is—a little Great Gatsby, even if no one rides off into the sunset like I was hoping they would. Another winner here was “Six Feet Under,” which you know we’re still thinking about . . .

I guess I would say that I’m in constant lookout mode for the satisfying end. I’m a student of ends. I don’t know if other writer-types feel as strongly about this as I do. For me, the value of the story may just depend on the end. I say that, and I’m sure that I can think of a ton of exceptions. Still, I always marvel at the effective ending. (“Seinfeld” bugged me; “St. Elsewhere,” a formative show in my early life, robbed itself of veracity.)

The Perfect Show is probably “Better Call Saul.”

Though “The Handmaid’s Tale” might be another kind of perfect: stylized writing—think about how George Saunders is real, but not real.

Watching TV Like A Writer means that school is never out. There is no such thing as downtime. I’m not all snob. I do or did “Downton Abbey,” “Call the Midwife,” “This is Us,”” The Americans,” and “Orphan Black.” I feel like I demand a lot from my narratives. Happily, my demands are often met.  


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Jennifer Spiegel has an MA in Politics from New York University, and an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from Arizona State. She teaches college classes and writes. She is the author of three books: THE FREAK CHRONICLES (Dzanc Books), LOVE SLAVE (Unbridled Books), and AND SO WE DIE, HAVING FIRST SLEPT (November 2018, Five Oaks Press). Spiegel is also half of the book-reviewing team, Snotty Literati. She lives with her husband and two kids in Arizona. Please visit her at www.jenniferspiegel.com.


* Some of this appeared in a slightly different form in an essay I wrote on “The Walking Dead” in Dead Inside: Poems and Essays About Zombies.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Page 69: The Truth About the Moon and the Stars

Disclaimer: The Page 69 Test is not mine. It has been around since 2007, asking authors to compare page 69 against the meat of the actual story it is a part of. I loved the whole idea of it and so I'm stealing it specifically to showcase small press titles - novels, novellas, short story collections, the works! So until the founder of The Page 69 Test calls a cease and desist, let's do this thing....








In this installment of Page 69, 

We put Brian Jacobson's The Truth About the Moon and the Stars to the test!




OK, Brian, set up page 69 for us.

Page 69 features the story’s eighteen-year-old protagonist, Shane, getting dressed up to break into his ex-friend’s family home. His mission is to retrieve a beloved prank call CD from his youth, The Ball Busters II-No Hang Ups. It is lost on Shane that he is cultivating the look of a Halloween burglar costume.


What is The Truth About the Moon and the Stars about:

 I’d say The Truth About the Moon and the Stars is about arrested development and haphazard, unintended occult initiation. Shane is a high school dropout who lives alone in the house of his recently deceased parents. While his peers are graduating high school and getting ready to head off to college, Shane spends his time engaging in anti-social hobbies like Chinese buffet brawls, Beanie Baby Heists and endless hours of prank calls. These activities lead Shane to discover a mysterious senior citizen, George. As Shane’s obsession with George grows, he finds himself hurled down a phantasmagorical rabbit hole that he isn’t prepared for.


Do you think this page gives our readers an accurate sense of what the novel is about? Does it align itself the novel’s theme?

It absolutely aligns itself with the theme of arrested development.  This page is a nice little snapshot of Shane at the beginning of the story. It gives the reader a glimpse into his obsessiveness, his proclivity toward transgressive situations, and his lack of self-awareness.




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PAGE 69
THE TRUTH ABOUT TH EMOON AND THE STARS



In the living room, Boyz II Men are singing “Motown Philly” on BET. As Boyz II Men demonstrate their Philly street style—pastel button-down shirts, matching khaki short outfits, matching bowtie outfits, cheesesteaks, lip-synching in front of a giant birthday cake, synchronized dance moves with canes—it occurs to me that David’s house might be empty right now. The fun, out-on-the-town vibe of the video jolts a memory; David’s parents used to go out religiously on Saturday nights. They probably still do. David and his sister are probably out as well. They both have lots of friends and it’s the last month of high school. I can’t believe that such a basic detail didn’t occur to me during any of my recent brainstorming sessions.

I call his house, hoping nobody will answer. Jackpot! I still don’t have a concrete plan, but if the house is truly empty, I won’t really need one.

I leave the TV on, wander upstairs to change. “Motown Philly” floats up to my bedroom as I sift through my closet for a black sweatshirt, black jeans, and a ski mask. Back-to-back Boyz II Men continues to serenade me as I slip into my chosen evening attire.

All dressed, I laugh at the masked man in the mirror. I fish through the closet for a crowbar while reminiscing about my favorite Ballbusters calls. There was the impatient deaf guy doing a survey. How can I forget the saucy rich prick who harassed a Rolls Royce dealership? I look myself over once more and decide that I’m ready to head downstairs.

Boyz II Men grow louder as I slide down the banister. I try to remember how far away David’s house is as I grab the keys. Should take about five minutes this time of night.


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Brian Jacobson was born in 1981 and raised outside of Boston. He is a graduate of Emerson College and lives in Portland, Oregon. The Truth About the Moon and the Stars is his first novel.


Monday, January 7, 2019

Where Writers Write: Stephen Evans


Welcome to another installment of TNBBC's Where Writers Write!



Where Writers Write is a series in which authors showcase their writing spaces using short form essay, photos, and/or video. As a lover of books and all of the hard work that goes into creating them, I thought it would be fun to see where the authors roll up their sleeves and make the magic happen.


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Stephen Evans is a playwright and the author of several books, including The Marriage of True MindsA Transcendental Journey, Painting Sunsets (12/2018) and The Island of Always (available 1/6/19). His website is https://www.istephenevans.com.






Where Stephen Evans Writes




What constitutes writing? If it’s only where you type the words into your computer, then my writing space is not particularly exciting. It consists of a tiny lime green desk that once inhabited my mother’s sewing room. Hanging on the wall above is a picture of the Iowa farm where my father grew up. Beneath that I have posted a quote from Marcus Aurelius Meditations:

If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure, as if you should be bound to give it back immediately; if you hold to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with your present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which you utter, you will live happy. And no man is able to prevent this.

I’m not sure it’s true, but I like reading it.

But if you count as writing the imaginative time that comes before the typing and reading and editing, then my writing space gets more interesting, and beautiful.

Several years ago, after a difficult family time, I decided to take some time off from work to catch up on writing projects I had been thinking about for years but had not had the time or energy to tackle. It ended up being nearly a year, not because I intended to take that much time, but because it took months longer to find a new job than I planned.

During this sabbatical, I was able to write drafts of two books: The Island of Always, the sequel to a novel I had published a while before, and Painting Sunsets, a middle-grade fantasy novel I have had in the back of my mind for more than two decades. I am happy to say I am publishing both books this winter. I also wrote a new one-act play about Ralph Waldo Emerson entitled Monuments, which we hope to produce this summer. And finally I drafted a good deal of content for a book on comedy. It was a very good year.

Before this period, my writing process had always been to sit down at the computer and see what happened. But this year, my process changed.

Behind my condo, there is a little park that residents of the community refer to as the Broadwalk. The park is narrow, maybe 100 yards wide and half a mile or so long, with apartments and townhouses lining either side.



Down the middle of the park, an asphalt path wanders with no particular sense of purpose, willing to get there when to gets there. Benches are spaced along the way, for those of us who like to sit and think. Or just sit and breathe.

On either side of the path, trees and bushes and flower beds measure your progress. In the early spring, forsythia, skinny stairways made of sunshine, and jonquils, upside down bells of yellow gold, ring in the change of season. In late April, azalea paint the path in pastels (including light purple, like this sentence). A few weeks later, the dogwoods bloom throughout the grounds, myriad pink and white lace handkerchiefs waving in the breeze.



But the mature trees are year-round joys. The community was developed 50 years ago, and many of the trees are that old or more. The variety is notable, from oaks to poplars to birches and many more. About half the path is shaded by these welcome neighbors.



Every day, or at least every nice day, before sitting down to write, I got into the habit of taking a walk, hoping the creative space in my head would mirror the calm and beautiful space outside. Around noon, or maybe 1:00 PM, I would head outside, turn left (always the same direction) and stroll for about 45 minutes down the path, past dogs and humans in equal numbers. Having no dog I was often the odd man out and about, nodding to the humans and saying hello to the dogs.

I never really had the sense that I was writing. But by the time I had made the turn for home, my mind had also turned to the next scene, and I was deep in my creative space. My pace would pick up, because I knew exactly what my approach would be, often my exact words, and wanted to get to the keyboard without delay.

Though once in a while, something halted the stream of thoughts and images, diverted it into a different track. Then the beginnings of a new poem or a story would begin take shape.

What more can you ask of an office than to offer you stories to tell?