Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

McCarter Theatre in Princeton imported the exciting new play, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company. It opened October 19 and runs through the Halloween season until November 3. Written and directed by David Catlin, the play contextualizes the familiar story of Victor Frankenstein and his ill-fated creature by grounding it in the strange and tragic life of the story’s author, Mary Shelley. More than a tale of horror, it’s a tale of deep woe.

The five characters are Mary Shelley herself (played by Cordelia Dewdney), her half-sister, Claire Claremont (Amanda Raquel Martinez), her lover and, later, husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley (Walter Briggs), and the couple’s friends, Dr. John Polidori (Debo Balogun) and Lord Byron (Keith D. Gallagher).

During a sojourn on Lake Geneva, the ominously stormy skies fire the characters’ imaginations. Byron suggests they each pen a ghost story to see which is scariest. Only 18 when she begins writing Frankenstein, Mary’s life is already marked by terrible events, including the deaths of her mother from childbed fever and her own first baby. Mary’s real-life sorrows help shape her narrative and, as the five characters enact her gothic fantasy, reality breaks through at poignant moments.

Mary’s tale demonstrates the folly of trying to play god. Victor Frankenstein wants to be “the Modern Prometheus,” to bring the spark of life to the creature he’s assembled. Much tragedy occurs before he recognizes he hasn’t grappled with the possible unintended, bad consequences. (Is this a cautionary tale for today, with respect to artificial intelligence and genetic manipulation?)

Nor does Victor (nicely ironic choice of name) take responsibility for the monster. He viciously rejects him, yet the monster’s relentless pursuit of his creator contains an element of devotion. “I would have loved to be your son,” he laments. Thus, we are confronted with a truth Mary expresses: “Within every man there is a monster; within every monster, a man.”

The play’s emotional experience is intensified by the reconfigured theater space. McCarter undertook the massive task of removing several rows of seats and moving the stage forward, to create an “in-the round” effect. (Watch this amazing transformation here.)

Most of the company comes direct from the Lookingglass production. All strong players, they manage the dramatic aerial features and give the characters richness and three-dimensionality. Though all are excellent, Gallagher delivers an unforgettable portrayal of the monster.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district. For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Deadly Ink: “Everybody Wins”

draft

The annual Deadly Ink conference held in northern New Jersey last weekend was loads of fun. Guest of Honor Wendy Corsi Staub was a lively presence and toastmaster Dick Belsky charmed. I saw a number of old friends, met authors I admire, and was delighted to be included on several panels. Yesterday’s post reviewed some of the discussion about “character.”

The Dark Side
The panel on noir stories and hard-boiled characters  risked bogging down in semantics but clearly demonstrated the many shades of black actually out there. Apologies if you’ve read this here before, but I offered Dennis Lehane’s definition of noir: In a tragedy, a man falls from a great height (Macbeth, the Greeks, Chinatown); in noir, he falls from the curb. Panelist Rich Zahradnik provided another good one: “In noir, nobody wins.”

Hard-boiled stories usually involve a detective who is not emotionally involved or is struggling not to be. Humphrey Bogart’s portrayals of Sam Spade (written by Dashiell Hammett) and Philip Marlowe (Raymond Chandler) epitomize the genre. Cynical and street-smart, not reliant on the intellectual powers of Sherlock Holmes or the “little grey cells” of Hercule Poirot.

The hard-boiled character nevertheless gets the job done. Occasionally crossing my path are books that are too dark. They feature down-and-out characters living in filthy apartments who smoke and drink too much; some of them can’t think beyond their next fix. I don’t find them interesting. With four strikes against them already, whaddaya know, they make (more) bad decisions. Give me a character who at least has the opportunity to make choices.

With me on this panel were Charles Salzberg (whose Swann character operates on the fringes of society, but has plenty of agency), Al Tucher (whose work features a smart and tough prostitute), and moderator Dick Belsky.

Location, Location, Location
In the session on story setting, historical mystery author Annamaria Alfieri said she chooses her location first (British East Africa, for example), then the time period in which that place offered the most interesting fictional possibilities.  

Panelists’ strategies for establishing a strong sense of place included attention to the small details and local idiosyncrasies (lots of research here, including site visits for contemporary works), plus making sure to describe the character’s emotional reaction to the location. If you could pick a San Francisco story up and move it four hundred miles south to Los Angeles, you should end up with a different story. New Orleans isn’t New York, and South Carolina isn’t South Dakota.

Of course, panelists and audience alike thought Al Tucher is onto something with his new book set in Hawai`i. “It’s a research trip.” Yeah, right.

This and yesterday’s post about “character” are a small sample of the conference’s varied and interesting program. Whether you’re a writer or a fan, be there in person in 2020!

Photo: Sebastien Wiertz, creative commons license

Revolution in the News

The American Revolution. The first one. Last week Joseph Adelman gave a talk at the wonderful (and, alas, soon to be moving out of our area) David Library of the American Revolution about his new book, Revolutionary Networks.

While much has been written about the importance of colonial-era newspapers and broadsides in spreading the word about the ideas and events of the American Revolution, no one before has paid as much attention to the printers actually responsible for producing them. Only a few were as well known or wealthy as Benjamin Franklin. Yet, though they were engaged in hard physical labor and not necessarily well educated, they straddled a unique place in society—one foot in the working class and the other in contact with the elite of their communities.

Much of what appeared in the newspapers of the day was recycled from other larger papers (a slow-motion form of “broadcasting”), some came from oral reports of townspeople, visitors, or sea captains, and some from written reports to the newspaper or obtained by it. Only the largest newspapers would employ journalists to go out and find stories. Oddly, in most towns, local news got short shrift. The number of local movers and shakers was so small, the local news was not news to them. The job of the printer was to decide which material from these sources to reprint and how much of it, and in that curatorial role, they played a significant part in spreading the arguments for independence and popularizing those ideas.

The Stamp Act, a significant British miscalculation, hit printers especially hard by taxing the paper they printed on. In case you wonder what the printers thought of it, the skull and crossbones version pictured gives a fair idea! A boss of mine would often repeat the maxim, “never alienate the man who buys ink by the barrel.” That is exactly what the British did, and the “the killing stamp” was circumvented every way possible.

Prior to the Boston Tea Party, the Sons of Liberty worked with local printers to encourage stories emphasizing how calm and orderly they were, a prescient public relations effort. Paul Revere rushed to Philadelphia with the story of the Tea Party, which prevented a similar occurrence in that city. The ship’s captain was given a choice: sail back to England with his tea or suffer the same fate as the East India Company’s ships in Boston. He sailed.

A final anecdote: you may recall that Benjamin Franklin advocated for creation of the U.S. Post Office. His goal wasn’t to facilitate personal correspondence, but to improve the circulation of newspapers, which he of course printed. So all those newsprint sales flyers that arrive in your mail? Annoying as they are? Going right into recycling? They are carrying out the original purpose of our postal service!

Adelman is an assistant professor of history at Framingham State University, among other posts.

Doing Democracy

Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Rick Atkinson chose the title of his new book—The British Are Coming—not because those words ever crossed Paul Revere’s lips (Atkinson says he was much more likely to have said “The regulars are coming!” since pretty much everyone in the Colonies was British).

Instead, he chose it because at the outset of hostilities between Britain and its rebellious American colonies, the British were indeed coming, across more than 3000 miles of ocean, and in force, with their huge navy determined to defeat the colonists through seapower.

Recently, he gave a lively presentation about his new book at Washington Crossing State Park—an appropriate venue, because it’s where General Washington crossed the Delaware River with his men in preparation for the battles of Trenton and Princeton. These were the first major battles won by the colonists in the Revolutionary War. And those victories gave the colonists new hope, at a time when hope had been “all but extinguished” by their losses.

Atkinson devoted some time to reflecting on the Founding Fathers. They weren’t flawless, he said, and in recent years some of their flaws—owning slaves, especially—have been emphasized more than their accomplishments. Writing in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” they were certainly making more a statement of aspiration than of fact. Many groups (not only slaves, but Native Americans, women, indigents, and others) were not treated equally under the laws of 1775.

Nevertheless, he emphasized, no other country in the world was doing what the Founding Fathers were doing at that time, as they worked to free themselves from Britain and toward achieving a “more perfect union” among vastly different colonies. And so, for nearly two hundred and fifty years, our nation’s creation story has remained vivid and compelling to people across continents.

We learn several things by examining those early days, he says: the nation was born bickering; we thought certain truths were self-evident; good leadership was vital; and whatever trials we face today as a country, we’ve been through worse. In November 1776, General Nathanael Greene lost Manhattan’s Fort Washington to the British. After this terrible setback, when he said to his wife “be of good courage,” he was speaking to us, Atkinson said.

When he started researching this book, the author had access to a new trove of archival material, including letters and memoranda written by George III himself. He has a knack for unearthing the telling incident that illuminates a bigger story and using a modest amount of statistics in a compelling way. One new (to me) set of statistics he gave showed the difficulties the British soldiers faced. Of the hundreds of ships sent from England to bring provisions to its troops, huge numbers were lost. The animals aboard died. The flour and supplies were spoiled. As one example, of 550 Lincolnshire sheep sent, only 40 survived the long voyage.

The insight that most startled him as he worked on this 564-page volume was the strength of the myths the British held about America and the war. Certainly not King George, nor any of his ministers, ever set foot in this country, where conditions were very different than at home. Our population was growing at four times England’s rate; two-thirds of white colonial men owned land, while in England only one man in five did; and two-thirds were literate and could vote, compared to one Englishman in six. And, because Americans lived in a frontier society, they were heavily armed.

The British leaders had an even more dangerous blind spot. They didn’t realize the extent to which Americans, isolated from their mother country by an entire ocean, had simply become accustomed to governing themselves.

A point Atkinson made several times, including in the context of the political upheavals we face today, is that “Democracy is never done. It is always something we must be doing.”

If Rick Atkinson is coming to your area, don’t miss him!

Painting by William Tylee Ranney:  “George Washington rallying his troops at the Battle of Princeton”; from https://www.goodfreephotos.com, public domain.

CrimeCONN 2019: Writers’ Inspiration

chalk outline, body
(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

There’s a buzz from just being in a room packed with crime writers and hearing topics discussed that consume your waking brain (but are of negligible interest to your kids, your running buddy, and pretty much anyone else). Then there are the ideas the discussion sparks. Oh, for the luxury of time to follow all those ideas to their dramatic conclusion and to absorb into my bones the writing advice provided by panelists Jane Cleland, Steve Liskow, and Hallie Ephron.

Here are 10 ideas and tips that struck me at last Saturday’s CrimeCONN at the beautiful Ferguson Library in Stamford, Connecticut. (Yesterday’s Post: Lawyers, Guns, and Money!)

1. Themes and variations. How a case is investigated and handled in court varies across jurisdictions. Envision a clutch of short stories in which similar crimes have very different handling and outcomes.

2. The case of the gentleman prosecutor. When a defendant’s mistress was about to be called to testify, the prosecutor let his wife know she might be happier waiting in the hallway. What other courtesies might a prosecutor extend?

3. Is that your best argument? An appellate lawyer advised, “Put your best argument first,” while people are still listening.

4. If you’re reading crime fiction to assess the state of the market, “don’t go back farther than five years.” There was a lot of nodding and murmured assent to the notion that Agatha Christie couldn’t get published today.

5. Coincidences happen in real life all the time. But in fiction, forget it. At least, “have no more than one,” advised Hallie Ephron, who for a similar reason nixed twins as a plot device. (We won’t mention that Louise Penny based a plot on the Dionne quintuplets.)

6. American English is tightly connected to rhythm, said Steve Liskow, which is why reading a manuscript aloud exposes problems in the language that are invisible on the page. Readers will stumble over the same awkwardnesses you do.

7. No need to write in dialect. In fact, don’t. Mention a character’s accent once and use word choice and the rhythms of subsequent speech to reinforce it.

8. Jane Cleland said great heroes are not afraid to act, though the panelists agreed they have a flaw or failing that must be overcome.

9. Put the important information at the beginning or end of a paragraph. Bury your red herrings in the middle.

10. And keynote speaker Peter Blauner repeated advice from legendary journalist Pete Hamil: “When doing an interview, listen very carefully to the last thing someone says to you.” You’re on your way out the door, your interviewee’s guard is down. This could be the juicy stuff.

See you at CrimeCONN 2020!

Lawyers, Guns, and Money: CrimeCONN 2019

lawyer

Organizers of this year’s CrimeCONN—led by Chris Knopf and Charles Salzberg—truly delivered. Their MWA-NY sponsored committee put together excellent panels and presentations, followed by entertaining keynote speaker Peter Blauner, whose resume includes the award-winning novel Slow Motion Rider and several seasons of Law & Order.

Lawyers as Characters

Authors who are lawyers or are writing legal thrillers peopled several panels. Some of them use their lawyer-character as a nexus of the story’s conflict. The conflicts may be external to their character and arise because of the inherent contentiousness of situations they set up, essentially because of the conflict between the lawbreakers they represent and orderly society. They also use characters who are advocacy lawyers—say, working for an environmental or women’s rights group—to raise issues without clunky exposition.

By contrast, other authors said their emphasis is on the character they are developing, and the fact the character is a lawyer is almost incidental to the story. These characters’ conflicts are often internal, when their needs and values conflict with the actions required of them.

Either way, writers and lawyers are professional storytellers following a loosely analogous process. A lawyer starts a case with the facts (novel set-up), makes arguments (development of the novel’s plot), and arrives at a conclusion/summation (denouement).

Attorney-author Connie Hambley said when she writes, she envisions her reader as “very smart opposing counsel,” answering in one way or another all the objections that reader might make. A variation on this point was the observation that lawyers are logical, accustomed to preparing their cases in a logical way, and a crime story also generally follows a trail of logic, through its accumulation and interpretation of evidence.

What Goes Wrong?

We remember the things that bug us, and though novels/tv/movies get a lot of details right, panelists had a long list of pet peeves. These included stories in which: surveillance is easy (and affordable); extradition happens almost overnight; judges make snap decisions about motions; and if it’s an organized crime case, there’s lots of electronic evidence. IRL, organized crime figures know what our politicians haven’t figured out: no emails, no texts, no Instagrams. And here’s one of my eye-rollers: DNA evidence that comes back in 24 hours. At the same time, panelists agreed that a story that strictly followed what happens in an investigation or in the courtroom would be unreadable (and cited this article).

They said witness testimony is often presented as too black-or-white. Either a witness is a truth-teller or a liar, when, in real life, witnesses do a bit of both. What’s more, they may not be intentionally lying, they may misinterpret something, they may misremember or simply forget.

Topic Pivot: CIA Fun

For what goes wrong (and right) with spycraft in the movies, see this entertaining video with Jonna Mendez from Wired. It’s a followup to her previous film of CIA tips on developing an effective disguise.

Tomorrow: Tidbits that might make good plot points

Photo: “Bewigged man.” by gappa01 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Painless Public Readings

microphone

If you write, you may receive invitations to read from your work to a book group, at a public reading, or for a bookstore event. It’s a chance to connect with an audience, to find places in your work that still need work, and to build fans. But writing doesn’t prepare you for reading.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Sympathizer, has written a spot-on essay for lithub on “how not to bore your audience at a reading.”

Before I give you Nguyen’s tips, here’s an important one from Walter Moseley. He told an audience at Princeton last year that “the longer I read, the fewer books I sell.” Author venues like Noir at the Bar, Mystery Writers of America, and my own Princeton-based writers group limit authors to 10 to 12 minutes. A taste and a tease. Nguyen’s tips and a couple of my own:

1. A reading is a performance. Writing is storytelling and good storytellers put some pizzazz into their reading. Your audience wants to be moved by your words and how you share them. He recommends listening to skilled readers, like author T.C.Boyle (here reading from his The Harder They Come, starting 7:50 in).

2. Create a script, rather than simply reading from your book. With a script, you can enlarge the type (I use really big type—18 to 20 points), so you don’t have to bury your head in the pages, and you can see the words easily even if the lectern is poorly lit, a lesson learned the hard way. Mark your script with underlinings and squiggly lines where you want to speed up, slow down, get louder, pause. Number the pages. Circle words you trip over in rehearsing. You may trip over them again. Authors with younger eyes tend to read from their tablet or cell phone, but paper never has a low battery.

3. “Practice, practice, practice,” Nguyen says. And time yourself. Cut out a paragraph here or there if, at the twelve-minute mark, you want to reach a particular point. A description that seems slow to you as a reader, probably is.

4. Make eye contact with your audience. Repeatedly. Those rehearsals you did will let you take your eyes off the page for longer too.

5. Be aware of how close to the mike you need to be and cement yourself  there. A little movement  is fine, especially with the arms, but avoid weaving back and forth, shifting your weight from one foot to the other in a seasickness-inducing way. Plant your feet and keep them planted.

6. How you look is important. “Dress up, whatever that means to you,” he says. It shows you are rising to the occasion. If certain colors or outfits perk you up and you feel good wearing them, choose one of those.

7. Bring energy into the room. “Your energy level will be the room’s energy level, which comedians understand,” Nguyen says.Here’s the bottom line: Once you’re on stage, you’re a performer. “You are putting on a show, whether it is for five people or fifty or five hundred. That’s what people have come for. If they just want to read your words, they can do it at home. Respect their time.” Don’t be boring. And if you’re really prepared, you won’t be.

And see advice from Jane Friedman‘s blog: “How to Plan a Book Reading that Wows Your Audience”!

Photo: Pete on Flickr, creative commons license.

Reading at the KGB Bar

Last night a writing friend and I participated in an even that puts us right at the fringes of the fringes of New York literary society—a reading sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America at KGB Bar in the East Village. KGB Bar is hidden away on the second story of an old tenement, up a vertiginous flight of stairs.

Although this description doesn’t do it justice in terms of its fine balance of joie de vivre teetering on the edge of seediness, here’s what the founder, Denis Woychuk, says about it:

In the years since it opened in 1993, KGB has become something of a New York literary institution. Writers hooked up in the publishing world read here with pleasure and without pay to an adoring public . . . The crowd loves it. Admission is free, drinks are cheap and strong, and the level of excellence is such that KGB has been named best literary venue in New York City by New York Magazine, the Village Voice, and everyone else who bestows these awards of recognition.

He’s right about the pleasure part. It was attentive crowd, even though I was the final reader of five, when the audience had already enjoyed several of those drinks! Wanting to appear convivial yet be one-the-ball for my reading, I’d nursed one glass of wine all evening. “What white wines do you have?” I asked the bartender. “Pinot grigio.” “Oh. What red wines do you have?” “Cabernet Sauvignon.” “I’ll have that.” The barrel savage. How appropriate.

The other readers—P.D. Halt, Mary Jo Robertiello, James D. Robertson, and A.J. Sidransky—each read a scene from one of their novels. I read the opening of a short story to be published by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. No idea when it will see the light of day, but if you’re a subscriber, watch for it! It’s called “New Energy.”

I’m so thankful to my writing group, Room at the Table, for organizing our twice-a-year public readings. (The next one is March 27! For details, see our Facebook page.) Great prep for my eight minutes at KGB–a former speakeasy and Lucky Luciano outpost, then h.q. for the Ukrainian Labor Home, a socialist hangout, which explains the Soviet memorabilia and the hammer-and-sickle matchbooks. It was fun!

Chrome and Steel Poetics

Ford Rouge plant, Dearborn

Last Saturday was Michigan Statehood Day, and to answer the kind of question my young daughter would ask, no, I was not around for those festivities back in 1837. A few days before the anniversary, I learned something new about my home state that is another cause for celebration.

Emily Temple at lithub compiled a state-by-state list of winners of America’s three major literary awards: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Michigan, tenth in total population, ranked seventh in the list with 15 of these top prizes. New York was first, of course with 71, followed by California (29), Illinois (28), Pennsylvania (24), Massachusetts (20), and New Jersey (17), a function of population size and the location of the country’s cultural epicenters. New Jersey slips in by grasping the coattails of Manhattan and Philadelphia.

Detroit’s population peaked at 1.85 million in 1950, the year Detroit native Nelson Algren won the National Book Award for The Man with the Golden Arm. After that, the city’s population numbers went into a precipitous decline, coming to rest at 673,000 in 2017. Though the city’s prospects appear to be looking up lately, its downward economic spiral had statewide effects. Yet a dozen of the state’s literary awards occurred in the post-apogee.

We Michiganders can thank the poets for keeping our state in the award limelight, up to and including Jess Tyehimba, who won the 2017 Pulitzer for Olio. Poet Philip Levine is responsible for four of the awards, two for the same book, Ashes, and poet Theodore Roethke for three. Levine worked in the auto factories from the time he was 14 and was committed to giving a voice to the anonymous workers there—a Diego Rivera of words. Not all the poets are Detroiters, of course. Roethke’s work hearkened back to his childhood among Saginaw’s fruit orchards. One of my favorite poets, Marge Piercy, titled one of her poetry collections Made in Detroit, and a scrap of paper with an excerpt of  her “In praise of joe” flutters next to my computer (and coffee cup). She’s not on the list of prizewinners, but she auto be.

photo, top, the Ford Rouge plant, Wikimedia, creative commons license


Stuff I Learned Lately and How I Learned It

Woodrow Wilson's Princeton Home

Woodrow Wilson’s house in Princeton cost about $35,000 to build and is now—rough-guessing here—worth about 100 times that — I learned this at a library benefit dinner at the actual house, featuring a talk by U-Mich professor Patricia O’Toole, who has a new Wilson biography: The Moralist. (Wilson promoted  the neo-Tudor architectural style, and you see it all over town)

Just because an online course is about a subject I’m deeply interested in doesn’t mean the course itself will be interesting — learned during sessions 1 & 2 of a 3-part online course about genetics in genealogy

How to tell llamas and alpacas apart – at Jersey Shore Alpacas (e.g., llamas are bigger and have perkier ears)

There was a founding father before the Founding Fathers and, though the British called him “the greatest incendiary in all America,” he’s practically forgotten – a lecture at the fantastic David Library of the American Revolution by Christian di Spigna, author of Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr.Joseph Warren

Not all NYC crime writers sport sleeve tattoos – disabused of this impression at the December Noir at the Bar readathon

It took about 1300 years for medical science to reacquire the knowledge lost when the Alexandria library complex was destroyed – adult ed course on Egypt

Ron Chernow (and thus the musical Hamilton) probably got a couple of the more risqué situations in his book wrong – also at the David Library, in a talk by Tilar Mazzeo, author of the new book, Eliza Hamilton

 I may be exhibiting early manifestations of that old person’s “no filter” problem – you don’t want to know

The black stockings and tights I’ve been wearing since Thanksgiving are navy – daylight.