Tennessee Williams: The Actor’s Challenge

So many of the insights of this five-session course on Tennessee Williams I’ve been Zooming from The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey are directly applicable to fiction writing. The course is led by STNJ artistic director Bonnie J. Monte.

(The next Book Club, scheduled for spring, will focus on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, both parts, and Henry V, with its powerful “we happy few, we band of brothers” sentiments.)

Actor Laila Robins, who played Blanche DuBois in STNJ’s 2008 production of A Streetcar Named Desire, talked about the similar power of Williams’s language. “The language acts you,” she said. She deliberately didn’t play the heartbreak of Blanche’s situation, aiming instead to encourage the audience to keep hoping beyond hope, as Blanche does, that somehow everything will work out. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve seen the play before and remember how it ends. You keep hoping.

I do too. Every time I’ve seen West Side Story, I’m silently praying Chino won’t show up with that gun . . . even though I know better. Reading Hillary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, I read slower and slower in the last fifty pages, knowing how it would end and hoping for a miracle.

Robins and Monte pointed to the “practical core” of many of Williams’s characters that lets them be survivors despite their evident frailties and failures. Even at the end of The Glass Menagerie, Laura (pictured)—who is as fragile as one of her glass animals—seems capable of resilience. Monte believes a good Tennessee Williams actress must possess a great deal of courage because the roles demand so much vulnerability. Think of Alma in Summer and Smoke or Jane in Vieux Carre.

Just as he did with Summer and Smoke and its later incarnation, Eccentricities of a Nightingale (with critics still debating which is the better version), Williams returned to Laura’s story repeatedly, including in his short story, “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” which ends with Laura picking up one of her precious LPs, blowing on its surface a little as if it were dusty, then setting it softly back down. Then she says something enigmatic about her encounter with Jim, the family’s dinner guest who, unexpectedly, is soon to be married and therefore no boyfriend candidate: “People in love,” she says, “take everything for granted.” Where did that come from?  It’s so much more worldly-wise than we might expect from Laura and more generous toward the situation than her angry mother is capable of.

This gets to another aspect of Williams’s plays that Monte has emphasized throughout this course, which is kindness. Yes, his characters may be in bizarre and uncomfortable, even brutal situations, but they display unexpected flashes of kindness toward each other. She views Alvaro Mangiacavallo in The Rose Tattoo as a kinder version of Stanley Kowalski from Streetcar. What she terms “extraordinary gestures of kindness” are demonstrated by many characters in Night of the Iguana too. “Williams finds the life-saving power of compassion in some very dark places.”

The ability to be both rough and kind, whether embodied in one character or distributed among them, not only requires great actors, but also a director who establishes the right balance between these poles. It’s something all good writers strive for.

Previous posts in this series:
The Deep Dive
How To See

Goalposts Moved for Spy Writers

Desmond Llewelyn, Q, James Bond, Spycraft

The Cipher Brief presentation this week from John Sawers, former Chief of the British Intelligence Service (MI6) covered a lot of ground, including how the world of espionage is changing in the networked age. John le Carré taught us how to understand the motives and tradecraft of Cold War spies, but those days are over. Writers about espionage, like those in the trade itself, must learn new skills.

Tradecraft Trends

Sawers emphasized the shifting importance of the data analyst versus the case officer. In the old days, case officers recruited, trained, and ran their agents. They were, in a way, laws unto themselves. Not any more. James Bond’s “Q” (pictured, as played by Desmond Llewelyn) is no more; agents don’t ask the technologists for help solving a problem, the data analysts and technologists help design the intervention from the outset.

This evolution takes place at a time when the domestic security services of target countries have upped their games considerably. They too may have sophisticated analytic capability, which changes how foreign agents must operate. An example Sawers gave is the availability of facial recognition software and biometric identification. The old methods of disguise—so integral to the spectacular television series, The Americans, set in the 1980s—are next to useless. “The technology is neutral,” he said, and security services have to make it an ally. Our fictional spies can’t put on a wig and run rampant in foreign nations any more.

Strategic Trends

Like many analysts, Sawers keeps a wary eye on China. The country’s behavior around the pandemic has led to “the scales falling from the eyes of EU countries” who’d been less prone to criticize it. While, as writers, we recognize that the Xi Jinping China of today is not the same China that Deng Xiaoping led just over thirty years ago, I admit to being a fan of Tang Dynasty China (700 AD), so I’m really 1300 years behind the times.

Sawers says Western nations are good at identifying security challenges originating from China, but it’s harder to counter Chinese economic strategies, like the Belts and Roads Initiative. Yes, that is an effort to improve the infrastructure of various low-income countries, but it’s also a way to tie the economies of these countries to China and attempt to influence their politics.

Despite recent bumps, the relationship between the US and the UK runs very deep, Sawers maintained, and the two countries’ intelligence agencies’ relationship is solid. The longer-term unease will be between the US and other countries with which it is not as close. Can they trust us not to whipsaw them every four years? That lingering tinge of suspicion should inspire some juicy plot points.

Sawers says the political upheavals and divisions that have occurred in both our nations are at least partly an aftershock of 2008’s economic collapse. This is especially interesting in light of a 2/10 Washington Post report that nearly 60 percent of people facing charges from the January 6 insurrection have a higher-than-average history of serious money troubles: bankruptcies, evictions and foreclosures, bad debts, lawsuits over money owed, or unpaid taxes. Something to keep in mind if these disaffected folk are characters in your new story!

Foreign Object(ive)s

origami, frog

Three short novels from international authors, all under 175 pages, showing you can do a lot to tell a great story, evoke reader emotion, and, by the way, garner significant critical praise in about half the length of the average American novel.

Ramifications by Daniel Saldaña Paris, translated by Christina MacSweeney – A young boy in Mexico City is obsessed with folding and refolding origami frogs. This is one of the rituals he developed to fill his mind and his time after his mother walked out on him, his older sister, and their rigid father. She couldn’t take their stifling middle-class life and vowed to join the revolutionaries in Chiapas. But did she? After a time of youthful doldrums, he takes dramatic action to find her and doesn’t. Then word comes she died in an auto accident. But did she? Now an adult, her son appears irredeemably “lost in the woods of machismo and social revolts ” says reviewer Alejandro Zambra.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori – Thirty-six-year-old Keiko Furukura found work at a convenience store when she was in her late teens and, despite her likely abilities, has never left that job. The daily rituals and predictable rhythms of the convenience store soothe her, and she has a talent for the needs of the job—customer support, upselling, store display. Her family wants her to aspire to more, to return to the university, to find a husband, but life at the Smile Mart is what satisfies this “defiantly oddball” woman. Named a “best book” by numerous publications.

A Hundred Million Years and a Day by Jean-Baptiste Andrea, translated by Sam Taylor – You can brace yourself for winter by reading this highly praised adventure involving the hunt for an intact dinosaur skeleton high in a remote Alpine wilderness. It’s the late summer of 1954, and three palaeontologists and their taciturn mountain guide have only a limited time to search before winter closes in, and close in it does. The guide insists they leave, but Stan, the organizer of the group, won’t go. Eventually, they leave him and he braves the elements so as to get an early start on the search the next spring. All alone, in the cold and dark, the boundaries between waking and dreaming, the now and the past blur. “Spare, elegant and poetic, this slender novel is quietly devastating” said the Daily Mail.

Photo of frog origami by Hanne Hasu for Pixabay.

Adding Some Theater Magic to Your Novel

Lady Macbeth

The set and costume choices used in theater are akin to how authors describe settings and the clothing their characters wear. Everything’s a choice—a tangible one or the words used to describe it. People (readers) evaluate our surroundings and what people wear all the time in everyday life, which puts a burden on writing about them. Are the details we choose meaningful? This is what set and costume designers understand to a fare-thee-well.

Where Are Your Characters? The Setting

Sets and costumes were the topic of my third “How to Watch a Play” class led by Adam Immerwahr, artistic director at Theater J in Washington DC. Sets and costumes give a show its tone and style and help define where and when it takes place. Check Google images for different productions of the same play, and you’ll find “dramatically” different interpretations that serve different dramatic concepts. Authors can use their descriptions in the same way, in order to establish a vision of a person or place in the reader’s mind. Auntie Mame wearing “all her pearls” (tells you everything you need to know about her!) or the foggy treetop setting for Nick Petrie’s escaping hero in Burning Bright.

The big difference is, of course, the theater audience can take in the set and costumes in a glance, whereas a written text works best when it focuses on a few key aspects. Does it matter that the carpet is beige, or is it more important that all the tables and shelves are glass (later to be broken)? Does it matter that the protagonist’s shoes are black, or will it be consequential that those shoes are the aptly-named stilettos? As a reader, I don’t care that a woman’s suit is gray, I care that she hasn’t changed style or color in forty years.

Innumerable specific choices in the set design—the materials used, their color and texture, and whether they appear buoyant or heavy, for example—can be brought into the visual field or, in writing, into the text, to convey not just what a room looks like, but to suggest the kinds of things that have happened there and can happen again.

What Do Your Characters Wear?

To convey a sense of the status and personality of a tale’s characters, costume designers use line, color, fabric, accessories, makeup, and wigs/hair. One of my “unforgettable theater moments” was a costume moment during a Folger Theatre production of Richard III. The cast was dressed all in black, the simple set was heavy and dim. No color at all. As Act II (I think) began, Richard, wearing a black cape, trudged up a short stairway. At the top, he flung open the cape, revealing a spotlit scarlet lining. No question about his murderous intentions! Or think of a Walter Mosley character wearing a wife-beater.

Dressing a character in all black or all white also suggests something about them. White usually implies purity. A bit of counter-costuming often gives Lady Macbeth a long white gown. In one production I saw, she was on stage alone and turned her back to the audience to grip the iron bars of a gate in both hands (thereby breaking gel-packs of fake blood). She ran her hands up and down her torso and, when she turned to face us, the blood-stained white dress was a shocker and, of course, dramatically significant (the pictured costume accomplishes a similar message).

Writers can’t achieve the same visual shock on the page but can always rope in a gobsmacked observer. Next time you go to the theater or watch a well-designed tv show, notice how the choices about sets and costumes shed light on the story and characters. Those skills are there for adaptation in writing. Choices (good, bad, or indifferent) have been made.

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Slivers of Backstory

Authors are constantly admonished not to dwell in backstory—especially early in a book or at the introduction of each new character—yet there are aspects of a character’s prior experiences that writers want readers to know. Unless you start your book at the very beginning of a character’s life, like David Copperfield’s “I Am Born,” there are relationships and episodes you need to review in order help readers understand who the character is in the today of the novel.

Since my character, Archer Landis, is in his early sixties in 2011, he was in his mid-twenties as the Vietnam War was ending (I have done this arithmetic about a hundred times, convinced I have it wrong!). The war, the draft, the demonstration would have been very much top-of-mind to him at a crucial and formative stage of life, with indelible impact.

Rather than take a deep dive into his war experiences—like Michael Connolly did so well in his first Harry Bosch story, The Black Echo, which was so immersive that when the story returned to the present day, I was briefly discombobulated—I doled out Landis’s war memories in small bites.

He briefly returns to his Vietnam experiences at three points in the novel. I hadn’t realized it as I wrote, but looking back, in each case, they come to his mind at times he is very much in peril. It must be the intensity of the hazard that resurrects them. For example, late one afternoon, Landis is standing in front of a window in his office, and someone shoots at him from across the street. He reflexively dives to the floor. No standing there, thinking, “What? Where did that come from?”

Some chapters later, anticipating a possible violent confrontation, he hearkens back to his Vietnam experiences and the way the Viet Cong would enter hostile territory and contrasts that with his options in the situation he finds himself in. It causes him to reflect on the kind of person he has become. I’m not telling a war story; I’m showing who he is.

Many pages later, when an attack on him and a well-armed colleague is expected—this is now forty years after Vietnam—he asks whether he should have a gun too.
“You done much shooting?” his colleague asks.
“Not since Vietnam.”
“There’s your answer.”

These snippets are reminders that Landis engaged in the issues of his day and was a part of them. They help me—and the reader too, I hope—see him as a fully rounded person who has a past, but is not dominated by it.

For how to think about this aspect of his past, I relied on Karl Marlantes’s fine novel, Matterhorn. Marlantes is a Yale alumnus, was a Rhodes Scholar, and served as a Marine in Vietnam.

The Mirror and the Light

In 2009, British author Hilary Mantel published Wolf Hall, the first book in her trilogy about Henry VIII’s powerful counselor, Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540). I wasn’t surprised that year when it won the Booker Prize, Britain’s top literary award. Three years later, part two of the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, won the Booker again—making Mantel the first British writer to win more than once. Eagerly, I’ve waited and waited for part three.

The Mirror and the Light was published earlier this year and, though it made the Booker longlist, it’s not on the shortlist. That seems more in the spirit of giving another author a chance than a critique of this new volume. It follows Cromwell in his final years, and, because I knew how it would end, I read its 750-plus pages in spread-out batches, extended my association with the protagonist and delaying the inevitable. I like to think Mantel felt the same reluctance for the story to end, accounting for the long wait.

Thomas Cromwell was the son of a violent, ill-educated blacksmith from the London suburb (then) of Putney, who rose to have extraordinary power in King Henry’s court. He had no army of his own, no particular following. Other than a few close allies, mostly among his family, the nobility, in fact, hated him and his influence. What he had in abundance was political acumen.

He made Henry a rich man and extended the king’s power and authority. He engineered the annulment of his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and his marriage to his second, Anne Boleyn. When Anne declined in royal favor, Cromwell again aided the king in ridding himself of an unwanted wife and placed Jane Seymour (probably the one of Henry’s six wives he loved best) in Henry’s path. After Jane’s untimely death, he negotiated with the German princes for a marriage to Anne of Cleves.

But there was so much more to Cromwell than bedroom politics. He oversaw the dismantling of Church properties, as he and Henry established the king as the head of the Church of England, not the Pope in Rome. He maneuvered against the Spanish, the French, and the Holy Roman Empire to protect his king and further his interests. In a nutshell, he saw the future and England’s role in it, laying the groundwork for a modern nation led by skill and intellect, not birthright.

Mantel’s trilogy benefits from the tumultuous times in which Cromwell lived. But beyond the inherent drama of the story, her books are an astonishing feat of imagination. In no aspect of his life is Cromwell dealt with superficially. He is a wholly imagined person, with a chess-player’s ability to think many moves ahead.

Over the centuries, other chroniclers have portrayed him as ruthless and ambitious—a characterization his enemies among the nobility would have spread about—Mantel’s books employ the skills of a mind-reader, making him a person of much greater depth. His enemies claimed he wanted to be king, but in her telling, he wanted only to serve his king.

Bottom line? Any author who can help you know so intimately and care so deeply about a person who died almost 500 years ago has accomplished something indeed.

Yearning, Desire, and Fiction

In an interview with author Kevin Canty I recently ran across (Part 1 here), he made the point that story characters must want something worth writing about. While that might at first sound like a point that hardly needs to be made, Canty is talking about the need for fiction to include what Robert Olen Butler calls “yearning,” or “the phenomenon of desire.” This, Butler says, is the essential ingredient most often missing from beginning writers’ work. (And any number of New Yorker short stories I abandon half-read.) Unsatisfying, in the way a crime without a motive is.

Of course, Canty says, characters in fiction may not choose the most effective or direct or logical ways of getting what they want, but they have to want something. They may even take actions that are counterproductive to their goal. Othello wants Desdemona, yet he murders her. These characters are like the people whom we would describe as “their own worst enemies.”

Or, what characters end up getting can be vastly different than what they thought they wanted. The outcome can be just as emotionally satisfying but far from the original plan. Think Jane Austen. In such cases, the author leaves enough clues to the character’s true desire that the reader sees it, even if the character has a blind spot.

Doesn’t it make a story feel too pat when characters want a particular outcome, and that’s exactly what they get? It’s too easy. Real life’s more complicated, which is why writers struggle with plot. Characters—much less the reader—don’t learn much from easy wins.

Putting himself in the role of a fictional protagonist, Canty says, “There’s a constant incompleteness and irony and all the rest of it that keeps getting between what I want, what I think I want, and what I get.” It’s what makes characters interesting. It’s what keeps us reading.

Canty’s most recent book is The Underworld: A Novel, about the aftermath of a disastrous fire in a small Western mining town.

Photo: eluj for Pixabay

Characters Who Do Bad Things

Handwriting, boredom

Ran across an old interview with Kevin Canty, a novelist and short story writer who teaches at the University of Montana in Missoula. At the time of the interview, he had some observations that seem particularly germane to writers of crime fiction.

To start off, he observed that people—readers, and maybe, sometimes, writers too—typically think “people who do bad things are a different class of people,” separate from the rest of us. Part of the writer’s job is to establish common ground between character and reader, no matter how alien—figuratively or literally—the character is, so that when the character does that bad thing, the reader believes in it and feels the pain of it.

The example that comes right to mind is the loss I felt when I realized Michael Corleone was beyond redemption. I had my hopes until then. Another is the character with the doomed-to-fail love affair (Carey Mulligan in An Education). Or the character who’s struggled to get clean who is again tempted by drugs (practically every musician biopic you’ve ever seen). Noooooo, we say.

These bad choices can’t just be dismissed, because, as Canty maintains and every war has proved, there are a lot of capacities in each of us. As a writer, what he tries to do “is reduce the distance between the reader and the character,” so that capacity remains viable and their choices and desires retain meaning.

At the same time, he makes sure the story actions “somehow reflect the characters, the people that are in them.” Whether bad or good. I recently read a thriller in which the main character joins the French Resistance. There were many excellent reasons for a Frenchman to do so, but most did not. So what was it about this character that propelled him to that choice? The author didn’t convincingly say. The important insights revolved not around the fact that he joined, but why he did.

“Love your bad guys,” writing coaches say.

Photo: Florian Pircher for Pixabay

Crime Short Fiction: EQMM and Rock and a Hard Place

magazines, reading

In the rambunctious arena from which mystery and crime short stories emerge, some publishers have played a long game, MVPs of that literary scene, some leave the game after a short run, and, though their retirement from the field is lamented, new players keep the game going. Here’s a take on one of those new pubs and recent offerings from a true stalwart.

***Rock and a Hard Place

The debut of another outlet for short crime fiction is something to celebrate. Editors Jay Butkowski, Jonathan Elliott, and Roger Nokes say they aim to capture the sense of desperation in our current moment. Though the 18 stories in their inaugural issue are about characters in desperate situations, at the bottom of the social heap, the editors believe these stories are compassionate and real. In going dark, they’re following the path of a good many other current crime magazine editors.

Stories I especially enjoyed included SJ Rozan’s funny “Sister of Mercy,” about a nun with an unusual and peculiarly useful side-job. Kathleen Kilpatrick’s “Ghost Tribe” about albino children in Tanzania raised interesting questions about identity and fitting in. For a clever jibe at Donald Trump’s Mexican wall, read Alex Skopic’s “Los Renacidos.”

In “Chlorine,” Al Tucher’s recurring character, the prostitute Diana, (wisely) decides against a replay of her teen years, and several memorable characters in SA Cosby’s “The Anchors That Tie Us Down” encounter a bit of the editors’ sought-after compassion. You’ll chuckle over the reversal of fortune faced by a pair of young grifters in Allan Leverone’s “A Town Full of Losers.” Finally, Jacqueline Seewald’s “Against the Odds” pits a gambler against his compulsions.

Not all of the stories appealed to me, and I abandoned one or two partway through. But that’s OK. The appetite for darkness isn’t the same for everyone or the same on every day. Independently published, Rock and a Hard Place is a notable first effort for a publication worth watching.

****Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine

I see I’m falling behind in my reading, as this refers to the January/February 2020 issue of EQMM, and March/April beckons from the bookshelf beside me. This long-standing publication of crime and mystery tales (almost 80 years!) may be thriving in part because of the diversity of story types it includes—something good for every reader. Among this issue’s many fine stories are the following:

>“The Wretched Strangers” by Matthew Wilson employs a novel protagonist, a woman who interviews asylum-seekers and must untangle their complex relationships with the truth.
>Satisfying (and deadly) comeuppance tales in “Now Hiring Nasty Girlz” by Toni LP Kelner, “Crow’s Nest” by John M Floyd, and “Stroke of Luck” by Bill Pronzini. Floyd talks about how he created “Crow’s Nest” in a 15 Feb SleuthSayers post (scroll down for it).
>“The Concrete Pillow” by Pat Black–a gritty police procedural set in Glasgow.
>Excellent depiction of a child’s flawed recollections in “The Summer Uncle Cat Came to Stay” by Leslie Elman.

You can subscribe to EQMM or its sister publication Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine or find single copies in the magazine section of your big box book store.

Photo: cegoh for Pixabay, creative commons license

****City of Windows

snow city blizzard

By Robert Pobi – In a CrimeFictionLovers interview with Robert Pobi about his 2012 debut novel Bloodman, he revealed he’d wanted to write an old-fashioned character-driven story. He’s done it again with his new police procedural, City of Windows.

Ten years before the start of this book, Dr. Lucas Page, astrophysicist, left his FBI career on uneasy terms after an accident with explosives nearly killed him. He now has a prosthetic arm, a prosthetic leg, and one ceramic eye that doesn’t quite track with the other. Page’s challenges in dealing with the bionic parts of his body greatly increase the depth of his character.

Now Page teaches at Columbia University in Manhattan. He thinks his students are generally lackluster, but then he has a jaded view of most things. Except his family. His wife Erin is a pediatrician. They have five kids and a happy dog—a ragtag collection of children “whose biological parents had failed them and the system had given up on.” The family interactions provide a nice balance to the story’s crime elements, though the kids are possibly too cooperative.

As the university’s semester closes out for the Christmas holiday, a huge blizzard is under way. Many blocks south in midtown Manhattan, a bizarre shooting has occurred, and the news reports show Page’s old FBI colleagues working the case. The victim was in a moving vehicle, shot from a high angle from a considerable distance. Identifying the sniper’s nest will be difficult.

Because Page has an uncanny ability to plot bullet trajectories and lines of sight, that evening’s visit from his former FBI supervisor, though unwelcome, is not unexpected. The Bureau is involved because the dead man was one of their own, Page’s former partner. Page’s uncanny ability, though rusty, still works—automatic, instinctive, and unexplainable. He identifies a building almost eight football fields away from the point of impact.

Old jealousies arise, family needs pull at him, his former supervisor is as opaque as ever, there’s political pressure to pin the shooting on a Muslim extremist, without any evidence, and Page is not on a track that will make him friends, but when a second law enforcement officer is assassinated a mere thirteen hours later, any hope evaporates that the first agent’s death was a fluke. In his heart of hearts, Page loves this work.

The second victim was shot on the semi-crowded tram that operates between Roosevelt Island and Manhattan, moving at almost eighteen miles an hour, through the continuing snowstorm, from a distance of almost a half-mile. Another impossible shot. And again, Page pinpoints the shooter’s position. When yet a third law enforcement officer is killed, it’s clear the killer is after specific individuals, but they seem unrelated and even are from different law enforcement agencies. Figuring out what they have in common calls on Page’s insightful investigatory skills, aided by three of those maligned college students.

As the bodies pile up, it appears that Page and his family are the assassin’s ultimate targets. This is the book’s weakest point, as it seems manufactured so the plot can culminate in a showdown between Page and the killer. While the rationale for the earlier murders follows a kind of twisted logic, the targeting of Page and his family does not. That problem aside, the story provides plenty of thrills along the way, and I hope Pobi writes more about Lucas Page.

Photo: from Pixabay