Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Top 10 succulent Southern lines from Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman

Can we set the controversy aside for a moment and just enjoy what a masterful writer Harper Lee is? I devoured Go Set a Watchman in one sitting this morning with just the right balance of laughs out loud and lumps in my throat. The Southern dialogue and character sketches are incredibly rich, astonishingly well done when you think how young she was. As I read, I grabbed screenshots of one great line after another, just so I could revisit and wallow in her wordsmithery.

A few of my favorites:
1) "The music instructor. He taught a course in what was wrong with Southern church music. He was from New Jersey. He said we might as well be singing 'Stick your snout under the spout where the gospel comes out' ..."

2) "A bigot. Not a big one, just an ordinary turnip-sized bigot."

3) "You've turned and tackled no less than your own tin god." [Apply as needed to swirling controversy.]

4) "If you wish to continue in darkness, that is your privilege." [I can think of so many uses for this one!]

5) "There's nothing like a blood-curdling hymn to make you feel at home."

6) "Hypocrites have just as much right to live in this world as anybody."

7) "Human birth is most unpleasant. It's messy, it's extremely painful, sometimes it's a risky thing. It is always bloody. So it is with civilization."

8) "Underwood, who in his time had published memorial verses of indeterminate variety, said he still couldn't publish this one because it was blasphemous and didn't scan."

9) "Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends."

10) "Oh dear. Oh dear me, yes. The novel must tell a story."

Bonus line to keep in your hip pocket for the right opportunity: "Aunty," she said cordially, "why don't you go pee in your hat?"

Goodbye to magnificent Miss Ellie, mom of Susan G. Komen and Nancy G. Brinker

So sad to hear about the death of Miss Ellie Goodman, mom of the fabulous Goodman sisters, Susan G. Komen and Ambassador Nancy G. Brinker. It was a joy getting to know her while I was working on Nan's book, Promise Me. Miss Ellie was 90 years old then, still remarkably sharp, and one of the most authentically beautiful human beings I've ever known. 

Tough and direct, she'd seen her share of heartbreak, but there was not whiff of bitterness about her. She was joyful, generous and quick-witted, but also deeply pragmatic and very smart. Once you meet Miss Ellie in the pages of the book, you quickly understand why Suzy and Nancy grew up with a deeply ingrained sense of service to others and an unbreakable bond with one another.

From Promise Me:
Mom was beautiful and stylish, making the most of everything, even when there was little money to work with. Aunt Rose passed along an evening dress with a beautifully crafted pearl and rhinestone collar. The fancy gown was too big and not something mother had occasion to wear, but she snipped off the collar and sewed it onto a plain black dress Fritzi had made for her. And when that dress became faded and worn, Mommy snipped the collar off and sewed it onto the next generation. Old photographs show her blossoming into that collar. At first, on a girl of twelve, it seems a bit much, but by the time she was in her late teens, it looks elegant and proud. Instead of the collar glitzing her up, she’s the one making the old hand-me-down look like something special. 
… She understood the difference between service and servitude and wore her traditional role the same way she always wore the perfect shoes: she liked feeling comfortable, functional, and beautiful. Mom never questioned or denigrated the different choices made by other women, but this was her choice, and she never regretted it. An unquestionably liberated woman, my mother did exactly what she wanted to do…

A few months before my parents were married, Grandma Fritzi took ill with a kidney infection. A simple thing, these days: usually little more than an inconvenience. Ten minutes in the physician’s office. Ninety seconds at the pharmacy drive-through. Penicillin, the drug that would have saved her, was discovered quite by accident in 1928 and first tested on human subjects in 1939. In 1940, when Fritzi’s fever drove her to the hospital, that simple but effective remedy was in the pipeline and would be commonly available just a few years later—barely a breath in the scope of history. Meanwhile, sulfa drugs were all the rage, the most potent weapon there was against battlefield infection; soldiers were issued a powdered form in their first aid kits. But because of its low solubility, sulfanilamide tended to crystallize in the kidneys when taken internally. Fritzi’s doctor—drunk, Mother maintains to this day—accidentally gave Fritzi a toxic dose.

Poor Mommy crouched in the corner of the hospital room as her mother, this angel of mercy, died in twisting agony. It left her grief-stricken, infuriated, and radicalized. From that day forward, contrary to the “doctor’s orders” standard of the times, Mom was unfashionably fearless about questioning the judgments of God and doctors who think they’re God’s golf buddies…

Initial thoughts having just devoured Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

I loved it, for starters. I think what the book says about life and racism is profound, and what it says about the publishing industry is a serious kick in the head.

I came in skeptical, but I loved this novel for exactly what it is: a brilliantly written, beautiful southern novel about a young woman who discovers her father is not a god. And I'm angry that some pompous, patriarchal publisher back in the day squashed it and told her to instead write a brilliantly written, beautiful southern novel about a young woman who discovers her father is a god.

WATCHMAN is about growing up, "killing the Buddha" and laying claim to one's own world view. It's about the danger of holding on to our innocence for too long, and the author brings that meaning boldly home with a simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking parable about how her ignorance about the facts of life almost results in her untimely death.

I can certainly believe the story that this is Harper Lee's first novel, and I believe assertions that it wasn't heavily edited, because frankly, there are some passages that gave me red pen DTs. Some of the monologues run on like a Rand Paul rally. I totally understand why the editor buried it and encouraged her to bend her considerable talent to the concept of MOCKINGBIRD, latching onto a fairly insignificant anecdote and reframing it as the main plot thrust -- which also neatly swapped the dynamics of the two main characters, making the star of the book a man instead of a young woman.

It made the novel about race relations instead of the smaller, quieter conflict between father and daughter. It set up very clear villains and heroes, clear good and evils, where WATCHMAN leads us into a humid southern swamp of human frailty and beauty, stereotypes sinking beneath the surface. In this respect, I think WATCHMAN actually stands above MOCKINGBIRD in a way many Southerners will love and many New Yorkers will never understand. The great challenge in WATCHMAN will be for readers in our enlightened {{cough}} world to accept and love an idol with feet of clay or to see that clay is not the same thing as shit.

There's been a lot of knee-jerk reactions to the racist rhetoric that comes out of Atticus, sharply contrasting with the high-minded monologues in MOCKINGBIRD. But it's worth noting that Harper Lee's original southern hick jury in WATCHMAN found Tom Robinson (the black man unjustly accused of rape) not guilty, where the southern hick jury in MOCKINGBIRD found him guilty -- and that's a major plot point. New York has its ideas about what the South is and who Southerners are, and MOCKINGBIRD facilitates those stereotypes while WATCHMAN explores the true nature of the southern -- and human -- heart.

Also worth noting: Atticus's father fought for the south in the Civil War. Is it not possible for people to cringe at the racist legacy clearly imprinted on him and still give him credit for a giant leap forward in ideology? And then can't we celebrate the additional leap forward for Scout without condemning him? Because he made her the woman she became. That's our job as parents: to raise up an exponentially better generation who will improve on the world while raising up an exponentially better generation to replace themselves.

And if you think we moderns are the paragons of enlightenment and virtue, then let's pause the racism conversation for a minute and talk about what the book says about sexism. The civil rights movement is in full swing in WATCHMAN. The "Women's Lib" movement is not even on the horizon. We still have a long way to go, baby, especially in the publishing biz.

Setting aside the suspicious circumstances of the magical appearance of WATCHMAN (and the buckets of money involved for the publisher and agent), I also totally get why Harper Lee might want us to have this novel now, at this point in her life. She is now where old Atticus is in WATCHMAN: an elderly person who is sick and tired of carrying the burden of our hero worship. And perhaps sick and tired of seeing Atticus deified as an icon of egalitarianism. She takes our Gregory Peck daddy figure from us the same way he was taken away from Scout. So there. Take that. Eat your disillusionment and throw up behind the ice cream parlor that was once your childhood home. It hurts, and it infuriates, and it strips away your security blanket. Get over it. Because only when you get past that are you able to know and love the truly told, deeply dimensional human beings in this book.

As an editor, I want to go back in time, embrace this young author, force her to firmly look in my eyes, and tell her: "This is a wonderful book. And you must write another one and another and another, and every one of them should say exactly what you want to say." Yes, I love MOCKINGBIRD as much as the next book nerd, but this breaks my heart: No matter what we know/don't know about the publishing process, the bottom line is that the publisher took hold of a young woman who had astonishing lyrical skills, massive raw talent, insight that transcended her years, and literary chops that set her on a trajectory to eclipse Faulkner, and they turned her into a one-hit wonder recluse who was unwilling or unable to endure publishing another book for 50 years.

 I love both Harper Lee's beautiful novels. I'm mourning for the dozen or so she could have and should have written.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Listen to Reese Witherspoon read the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman

In anticipation of the release of Harper Lee's new (kind of) novel, Go Set a Watchman, Guardian serves up this nifty ambient-train-sound-optional audio chapter.

“Tired of New York?” he said.
“Give me a free hand for these two weeks and I’ll make you tired of it.”
“Is that an improper suggestion?”
“Go to hell, then.”

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

“This has to be a breach in the time space continuum. No...

“This has to be a breach in the time space continuum. No way could he grow up this quickly.” (Happy Birthday, Malachi!)

via Tumblr http://ift.tt/1JPEpTW

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Mrs. Grey will see you now (3 things I learned coming out of the hair color closet)

Continuing the extended metaphor I began back in 2011 with this post on My Publishing Career as Illustrated by My Hair, in which I detailed a circuitous journey that began in the 1970s. Back then, a slow-to-blossom tweenage flower child, I was ironing my hair straight and selling erotic short stories in the girls' bathroom at the local roller rink.

My long auburn locks disappeared during chemo when I was in my early 30s. For ten years, I kept my hair super short and colored it various shades of red in an attempt to ward off the bad cancer juju. During my 40s, I let it grow, gave up on the auburn and went with an ash blond that made the increasingly ashy roots less noticeable.

When I hit my 50s, I decided to stop coloring my hair and embrace my grey. That was easier said than done, but here I am, and along the way, I learned three important lessons, which I intend to apply to life and writing as I enjoy my hard-earned silver era.

Thing #1: It's a process. Whatever "it" is, it's a process.
I suppose it would have been easier to just cut the hair off and start over, but I've done the micro-short-to-hippie-long hair transition before. There's a lot of bad hair days as you hang in there through the awkward stages. The temptation to cut (like the temptation to abandon a book that becomes a struggle) is always lurking.

In order to keep the length, I had to allow a few inches of roots to grow out. Years of hair color had to be stripped away. Then I had to nurture my hair with cold water and conditioner for several weeks before the final process of low-lighting, high-lighting and toning to match my true color.

As a structural editor/book doctor, I've held the hands of several authors as they did a similar strip, recovery and restoration process on a book. The key is that natural root. Once you can see the authentic soul of the book, you know what to do with the rest.

Book process, life process, color process, whatever. Patience and persistence will be required. Bet on that and assemble a great team. Which brings me to...

Thing #2: A lot of experts are terrified of change. Because it means they won't be experts anymore.

For years, stylists kept telling me there was no way to go grey without cutting off my long hair, but I started seeing young women doing it for themselves on YouTube. Apparently that's a thing now, young women with grey hair, and as soon as that trend took hold, well, whadya know! Shut up experts. Young women do what needs to get done. (Which brings me to Thing #2 subsection A: Young women, you have a lot more power than you think. Use it wisely.)

This is reminiscent of the dragging acceptance of indie publishing in the traditional publishing world. Agents and publishers were loathe to accept this new universe because it meant the crumbling of the system in which they were super comfy, even though the vast majority of authors were not. Lamest battle cry ever: "That's the way it's always been done." Whether I'm looking for a colorist, oncologist or freelance copy editor, I want someone who has ten years of experience, not one year of experience ten times.

I knew I'd found the right guy when Sergio Sepulveda at Visible Changes told me, "There's always a way to do something. It's just a question of 'has somebody figured it out yet'." Apply this to publishing big time. The only thing we know for sure about anything is that it is not the same as it was yesterday. Expertise in the way things have always been done is a great foundation for the purpose of exploring, building and inventing the way forward. It's less useful when it becomes the La-Z-Boy recliner from which experts advocate for status quo.

Thing #3: If someone tells you not to be yourself, they are wrong. 

Before Sergio, every stylist I consulted tried to warn me off the idea of embracing my grey with the same dire (in their minds) prediction: "You'll look older." The thing is, I AM older. I'm thrilled to be older.  Why invest time, energy or money in not looking like myself? For whose benefit would I be doing that?

Sergio's take on it: "There's nothing more beautiful than a woman who's happy about who she is." Can I get a "Amen" up in here?

It kills me to see authors jumping through hoops to please agents, acquiring editors, theoretical readerships and nebulous trends. It's like trying to reinvent yourself to please an indifferent boyfriend. Down that path lies despair. Your power to create, your best hope of happiness, and yes, your marketability lie in your uniqueness. Embrace it with joy!

Here's the new older me with the amazing Sergio, awesome haircutter Hua, their shampoo-slinging sidekick Justin, and a totally fabulous photo-bomber rocking her own silver streaks.

It takes a village: Me, Hua, Sergio, Justin and Foxy Frostentip
UPDATE 2/2/17 ~ Having escaped the abusive environment of chemicals and color, my hair has grown out a lot faster. I now have 100% virgin/chemical free, 99.9% gray hair. And I love it.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Goodbye with enormous gratitude to my friend and editor Marjorie Braman

Stunned and sad to see this news today:
"Marjorie Braman, 60, died July 2 at her home in Taghkanic, NY of complications from breast cancer. She began her 26 years in publishing as an editorial assistant and worked her way up to svp, publishing director at HarperCollins and then vp, editor-in-chief at Henry Holt. She has worked as a consultant at Open Road Integrated Media. Authors she worked with include Elmore Leonard, Michael Crichton and Sena Jeter Naslund. Most recently Braman worked as an independent editor and was a member of the independent editors' group 5e..."
It's an understatement to say that Marjorie changed my life. She acquired my memoir Bald in the Land of Big Hair for HarperCollins in 2001, my doorway to what was then The Big 6 and my first crack at the bestseller lists. While it was in the pipeline, she encouraged me to start a syndicated newspaper column and, even though it was way outside her job description, provided feedback and advice that shaped the direction of that column ("Earth to Joni") and a national magazine column that followed.

HarperCollins published my third novel, The Secret Sisters, in 2006, and Marjorie's feet-to-the-fire editing took my craft sense to the next level. In the years I worked with Marjorie, I learned most of what I know about the art of writing, the craft of editing and the business of publishing.

Elmore Leonard had this to say about how she worked:
"Marjorie was never a pushover, we talked all the time while I was at work on a novel. She would question the identity of pronouns wandering through a paragraph, or cite passages where I was telling rather than showing what was going on. But for the most part Marjorie liked my style and let me run with it." 
It says a lot about Marjorie that this perfectly describes my experience with her. She worked with a lot of big names, but she made a little nobody like me feel like my work was just as important. And she would sharply correct me for calling myself a little nobody. Every once in a while she would send me a fax (and later email) with instructions to print it out and post it on my office wall. One that remained there for almost 15 years simply said: JONI RODGERS: YOU ARE NOT A HACK.

Whenever I felt deflated by the industry slings and arrows, she would chastise me for "acting like an orphan in the storm" and remind me that an author has to be the bravest champion of her own work. We can't depend on the editor or the agent or the PR department. She is solely responsible for kicking my ass into the big girl pants that make it possible for me to thrive as an indie author and freelance editor. And I often hear myself repeating time-proven Marjorie-isms to my editing clients.

When I started putting myself out there as a freelance editor, Marjorie encouraged me and sent me some great advice in the form of this incisive PW article she wrote on the changing roles of in-house and freelance editors:
In this changing landscape, as publishers look more and more at their bottom lines and continue cutting back on in-house staff, I can envision a model in which the in-house editor is the jack-of-all-trades that the publisher requires, while still editing select projects. For other projects, the in-house editor might need to work with a trusted freelance editor to help move things along. But publishers have to acknowledge what every editor—in-house or freelance—knows: editing is crucial and can make the difference between the success or failure of a book.
Marjorie's sure editorial hand made an enormous difference in the books we did together. Her advocacy and mentorship made a huge difference in my career. Her friendship made a profound difference in my life.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

"Artists lead. Hacks ask for a show of hands." (A blast from the past and peek at the new #SteveJobsmovie)

When a ghostwriter friend mentioned she was suffering from increasing pain in her hands (hazard of the profession), I told her, "I just posted something about that on BoxOcto last year." When I searched it out, my mind was blown a bit. It was actually posted in October of 2012.

Here's the post, followed by an update:
Gary sprained his hand last night at work, and it's swollen up like one of those old fashioned baseball mitts. For years I've always kept bags of frozen peas specifically for the purpose of icing my aching wrists, fingers and hands after hours of typing. I got one out, and it was frosted solid. I suddenly realized I haven't had to ice my hands since last Christmas when Gary gave me a MacBook Air.
I'm not one of those rabid Apple heads, but this was a profound improvement in my quality of life. There are times when my ghostwriting schedule forces me to crank out 3K words a day (and if you're a writer, you know that 3K good words means also typing 5K off-the-mark words that end up cut or reworked.) Many was the midnight hour that found me lying on the floor fighting tears of agony, my hands and forearms piled with the fruit of the Jolly Green Giant. 
The realization that it's been 10+ months since I had to plan for and facilitate that pain - it just blew me away. How did I not notice that? How was I not celebrating it every day? I suppose it's because the MacBook allows me to focus on (and celebrate) what I'm writing. The presence of pain is impossible to ignore; the absence of pain is something we take completely for granted. 
A hallmark of great technology: it disappears into its own functionality. Instead of cluttering and upstaging life, it provides a vehicle for it. Like a really good bass player (or a really good ghostwriter), it provides structure and soul without calling attention to itself.
UPDATE: My MacBook Air is still going strong, and I eventually hunted up a matching low impact keyboard for my desktop PC. Typing is virtually pain-free and dramatically faster. After switching to the MacBook Air, I actually started transcribing interviews in progress. It's super slim in the bag and quiet enough that it doesn't register on the digital recording, and I'm able to insert my own thoughts and questions on the fly rather than depend on my sieve-like memory.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Okay, now it's October 2016, and I still have never had a problem with my 5-year-old MacBook Air. The battery life is not great anymore, so I may invest in a new battery. Other than that, it's still going strong. I've been using it twice as long as any other laptop I've ever owned, and I've used it ten times more -- which also makes it the cheapest laptop I've ever owned. After my PC died, I replaced it with an iMac, so my laptop, desktop, and phone now communicate seamlessly. Remember how I said "I'm not a rabid Apple-head" earlier? Yeah, well... praise God and pass the KoolAid.

And now for the trailer. Can't wait to see this movie, because anything written by Aaron Sorkin is pretty much a masterclass in dialogue and plotwerk. My motto for the foreseeable future: "Artists lead and hacks ask for a show of hands."


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