Archive for the ‘Name dropping’ category

Dennis Hopper, RIP

May 30, 2010

This one is a real loss, as many more than I have said. What I loved best about Hopper’s work is what most people did, I think: the combination of deeply realized characters and the strain of pure crazy Hopper could maintain through even the most seemingly straight persona. He could seriously act.

The only momentary oddity I can add to the general remembrance is that I actually met Hopper once, in a truly weird concatenation of worlds. In 1988 (sic! we did in fact have television back then, folks) I was working as associate producer on a NOVA documentary about the then hot topic of chaos (as in the mathematical and physical concept, and not that which pertains in, say, Afghanistan right now).

I and my boss, the BBC Horizon producer Jeremy Toye (I hope I recall his name correctly after this span of years) were in LA to interview a mathematician who had been doing some work with a bunch of cardiologists on chaos in heart rhythms (I have no recollection if the idea worked out or not). Our guy was at UCLA, but he was much too cool to live in Westwood, so we met him at his apartment in the beach block of one of the roads that dead ends into Venice Beach. (Yes, I’m still covetous.) He lived opposite one of the canonical dives of the day — it might have been the Beach Cafe, and he was one of its regulars, and he paraded us across the street to take our meeting (we were in LA, after all), in his haunt.

As we walked in, around eleven in the morning, there were just a few folks in the place. One was at the very end of the bar, back to the door. Our guy, Alan, said something like “Hey, Dennis!” and started striding over to one of the other Venice regulars of the day, none other than Dennis Hopper. Alan entrained Jeremy and me in tow behind him, telling us he wanted us to meet his bud, and we dutifully followed. Hopper looked up, saw three men coming at him, backlit against the door, and coiled up. His face, just for a moment, had the full Hopper feral threat written across it, a kind of fight or flight statement written in the cast of his eyes and the tensing of his muscles.

Then he saw it was his cafe friend Alan, and two kind of dweeby PBS guys and he relaxed, said hello, shook hands, and turned back to his meal.

At the time, I just thought how extraordinary it was that Dennis Hopper in person could project that sudden and frankly terrifying shift of feeling so precisely similar to what came through on the screen. Over time, my reaction shifted. This was the moment that I first got a visceral feel of how f***ing hard it is to be someone on whom masses of strangers paint emotional connections. Hopper was just having a late breakfast in his usual spot, and he could not, it seemed, fully relax even there. Lots of good things come to the fortunate, the talented and the famous. But we do put a bite on those thus blessed.

All that aside: I’ll miss what he could put on screen.

Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 8.0: Catching Eyeballs 1 — freelancing and blurbso

June 11, 2009

Apologies for the gaps in this series — let my advise any would-be writers not to try to close on a house whilst publishing their books. (As for the wisdom of buying a house at all amidst global financial meltdown…that’s another story. If I could count I wouldn’t be in this business…;)

There are a lot of stray threads on publishing as a general proposition and some specifics as to what’s happening right now with Newton and the Counterfeiter, (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound), so my plan for the next couple of days is to mix some background with some of the right now in a few, hopefully shorter posts.

This one is about the most basic task an author has to accomplish, besides writing the thing in the first place.  You have to put your book in the best possible place to secure an audience.

That’s it.  Books unread are books forlorn.

I don’t write for myself.

I do the writing for me.  The play of language, the pleasure of finding things out, the puzzle solving, the sheer daunting “I’ll never get this done” terror to be overcome, all of it — this is what gives me happiness on every most some one or two working days.

But the work once written is for others, and if those others don’t see it in sufficient quantities, what’s the point?  A journal and a commonplace book would be enough for solo pleasure.  I write to engage in conversation with others, and for that  you need eyeballs.  And they can be hard to find …which is what this series is all about.

So, first, full disclosure:  on the record so far, I’m crappy about doing this part of the book-writer’s job well.  My books have emerged to a whimper of public outcry for the most part.  I have all kinds of excuses.  (Have I mentioned that you shouldn’t publish a book of serious trade non-fiction about Albert Einstein three weeks into a then popular war?  Oh, I have?  Sorry.)

But excuses aside, not only am I reasonably bad at attracting attention to my own work, so are almost all authors, and, increasingly most publishers.  I’ll write more about my experience with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on Newton, but the short form is that while I think they are working hard and are ahead of some others in making the transition to a publishing marketplace in which the power of print reviews has waned enormously, they have some way to go yet.  (And I’ll promise you that’s about the most measured a sentence as you will ever get out of an author about the amount their publisher is doing for their book.)

But that said, it’s still pretty clear that there are some things that always benefit a book.


Quote for the Day: Junot Diaz/Thoughts to Think in the Midst of Interesting Times Edition

October 2, 2008

I have the very good fortune to call the wonderful writer and generous artist Junot Diaz my colleague (and friend).

A week or so ago, he gave a reading from his now famed-across-the-galaxy novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao at MIT — it was kind of a homecoming after roughly a year of travels and talking in support of the book.

In introducing Junot to the crowd (and the world — the reading will be up on the MIT World site in fairly short order)  Professor James Paradis, head of MIT’s writing program, pulled out one of the less well-known bits of Junot’s work, the 2001 edition of The Beacon Best collection that he edited.

Paradis read a short passage from Junot’s introduction, and the quote so precisely catches the necessity of vigilance and the importance of art — never more vital than at those times when the self-styled “grown-ups” have so decisively lost their way.

Here, expanded, is that passage:


For the last couple of years I — a former five pages a day type guy — have not been able to write with any consistency.  The reasons for my “block” are numerous and not particularly relevant, but as a result I’ve had more time to read newspapers and watch television, more time to notice how the world is being represented by those whom we shall call for simplicity’s sake the powers-that-be.  I’ve been aware since about the Reagan administration of the gap between the world that they swear exists and the world I know exists.  What I hadn’t anticipated  — I guess I should have been reading more Chomsky — is how enormous that gap had become.

…[Junot uses several paragraphs to discusse his experience fighting the New York City Board of Education’s short lived school privatization scheme as a way into, inter alia, his framing of the work he had selected for the collection.  And then…]


During the last week of the anti-privatization campaign, when Edison and the Board of Education and the media and the politicians were turning up the heat, I would occasionally feel myself losign heart.  (There’s only so much exposure to the Official Story one can take before it starts to wear on you.)  I was very fortunate, however, for it was at this same time that I was reading these stories, these essays, these poems.  While those of us against privatization were being knocked about in newspapers and on the news, while we were being erased and distorted into cartoons, I was sifting through journals, printing pages out from e-mail, thumbing through blurred photcopies.  Would you t hink me sentimental if I said that the freshness and originality and humanity of these writers and their work renewed me?  When billions and billions of dollars are spent trying to convince you to see the world in one particular way, isn’t it something like salvation when you discover voices, brave and unwavering, who invite you to see it in another way?

Amen and amen.

Image:  Jan Davidszoon de Heem, “Still-Life of Books,” 1628.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Program Notes: Pulitzer Shout-Out edition.

April 7, 2008

No science here, just enormous pleasure at the deserved honors falling the way of two good folks I know.

Mark Feeney is a newspaper guy from when he and I both used chisel and slate to work up our first drafts.  He’s done most of what can be done on a paper — obituaries, features, criticism, editing, reporting, always with a feel for the subject and sweet touch with language.  He loves the vivid image, and this year his profession has honored him for the skill with which he comes up with lines like this one, from his remembrance of Barbara Stanwyck:

In “Clash by Night” (1952), a shocked Paul Douglas finds her in a bar in broad daylight and asks how often she drinks whiskey in the morning. “Only when I have a cold,” Stanwyck says, with an irony so flat it could be a pancake in Kansas.

Ladies and Gentleman:  Your 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner for arts criticism.

And then there is my MIT Writing Program colleague Junot Diaz.  Junot has been in the news a lot this year, all for his astonishing novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It’s a great work, no hyperbole, funny, desperately sad, often horrifying, beautifully written.  Actually — beauty isn’t quite the word.  Junot’s writing is brilliant, a complicated play of different styles and levels, genuinely exciting prose.  He wins this years Pulitzer for fiction (after having taken home the National Book Critics Circle Award already) for that quality of effort in this novel, but what the awards don’t tell you is what great colleage he is.  He is a demanding, generous, inspiring — hackneyed, I know, but true this time — writing teacher.  His students come back again and again, not because he is easy on them — quite the reverse — but because he evokes from them expression they did not know they could execute.

I’ll be honest.  Like a lot of writers, I think, my first reaction to reading an awards announcement that does not include me is pure, green-eyed jealousy, (never mind whether I’ve got anything remotely in the running, of course).  But not this time.  The good guys, both in the sense of good people and good writers, scored two.  A glass will be raised slightly west of my current location to both this evening.  And go take a look at their stuff.

Image:  Edward Collier “Newspapers, Letters and Writing Implements on a Wooden Board,” c. 1699.  The Tate Gallery.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

“Good to see you. Good to see anyone!”…

April 6, 2008

…quoth Keith Richards in the new Scorsese concert film, Shine a Light...

Which is his way of acknowledging something a lot of folks have wondered at:  the astonishing fact that Keith is still looking at the grass from the top down.

All of which is my backhanded way of apologizing for the long hiatus; your blogger just survived hell week — hosting visits to MIT by David Macaulay and Chris Eyre. Great people both of them, lots to say, but all consuming.

I’ll blog both of their visits separately, (in David’s case, probably in more than one post, as he was visiting MIT on what I hope is the first of a series of micro-fully realized residencies, and he and I spent two days popping into busy people’s lives with a mandate to ask “what’s going on” across a wide range of disciplines and approaches to the problem of figuring out how the material world works. Kid in a candy store time for both of us.

So this is just to say I’m back, and to offer a few Sunday-type posts to entertain those faithful who have stuck around during the dry week. Regular posting resumes….