My Novels Are Comics (Part 2)

With the world so out of whack at the moment, it’s difficult to know what to say to friends, much less strangers, other than “Stay safe.” At a time like this, the normal author-like pursuits of writing and blogging seem irrelevant on one level, although comforting on another. I’ve been trying to draft a new novel, a sequel to a previous one, but conjuring up the comparatively normal world where they unfold feels disorienting, if not a tad self-indulgent.

Accordingly, this could be an ideal time to revisit old stories instead. The problems and traumas we wrote about months and years ago were comparatively normal and recognizable, even if our characters were weeping and moaning over them as if the world had ended. Who doesn’t yearn for the good old overwrought themes of unreliable boyfriends, love triangles, jealousy and revenge, bad bosses and soul-sucking jobs, social awkwardness, and all the rest of it?

I’m also renewing my ongoing effort to envision a few of those old stories as movies. Obviously, there are no production companies or crews available right now to make them spring to life on video, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be envisioned graphically. If my novels aren’t yet movies, at least they can be comics. Trying to encapsulate them in one panel proved to be a challenging exercise, like trying to spit out one of those hyper-streamlined elevator pitches. Of course they don’t look terribly professional, and melding them into social media is a skill I don’t yet have. Enlarging them for better readability tends to make them too humongous. But what does it matter if they’re comical-looking? I guess you could say they are comedies.

 

 

 

 

In The Rock Star’s Homecoming, college senior Imogene has hit on a unique topic for her English honors thesis. Ignoring her advisor’s advice to choose a more traditional subject, she is determined to concoct a theory about the influence of poetry on rock music. Her research will consist of critiquing her favorite band and its lead singer, Jake, who have returned to the campus where they originated for a special Homecoming weekend. She lures the musician to her father’s nearby farm, where the inevitable seduction occurs. Will this help or hurt her academic efforts?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s Play Ball features fraternal twin sisters Miranda and Jessica, always close but competitive. They are pursuing opposite theories about who plotted the kidnapping of Jessica’s fiancé, Major League ballplayer Manny Chavez. The crime took place just prior to Manny’s scheduled Congressional testimony about steroid use in baseball, which would have implicated several teammates of his. Jessica’s main suspect is Petie Jansen, Manny’s fiercest rival on the team, and inconveniently, a close friend of Miranda’s. Miranda is determined to clear Petie, and to pursue her own suspect. Choosing the most public place available, she confronts Madeline, the daughter of the team’s owner, with the incriminating evidence she’s compiled. Incidentally, she also confirms her suspicion that Madeline has been sleeping with her husband, Tommy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Handmaidens of Rock unfolds during the wild early 1970s. Aspiring college journalist Candy has attached herself to a campus rock band. Not caring to be regarded as a mere groupie, she has fulfilled her wildest dream by marrying the flashy guitarist who fronts the group. Then, shortly after discovering she’s pregnant, she catches her roommate in bed with her husband. She vows to take revenge by writing investigative articles that will implicate her former best friend in a plot to fire-bomb the campus theater, and her husband’s band for inciting a riot at a festival.

My Secret Drawer

I recently came across a half-forgotten drawer in an ancient but sturdy desk where my main computer and printer now sit. This drawer is stuffed with old letters, many of them over forty years old, written long before such contraptions as personal computers and printers existed. These handwritten letters reacquaint me with a world that no longer exists. Not only am I mostly out of touch with the friends who used to correspond with me, but the method of correspondence itself seems to date from medieval times. A message written in a friend’s handwriting provides a level of intimacy that simply doesn’t come across in e-mails. It reminds me that I had some vibrant friendships before and during college, and for a few years afterward. Those friendships have mostly gone by the wayside for various reasons, but there are no hard feelings, at least not on my part. Even if a few of them ghosted me, I’m grateful for the time we had. Without my small group of friends, I would have been lonely in high school and college, at least when it came to other girls. They were there for me when I really needed them.

Many years later, some of my college friends have turned up, unbidden and fictionalized, in my novels The Rock Star’s Homecoming and its sequel, Sycophants. My portraits of them are nostalgic but not altogether flattering. I gave them the collective name of “nondescripts,” not that I thought of them that way back then. It was a name they coined for themselves in the stories. The more popular and influential stars of the college tended to overlook them as part of the woodwork. But that didn’t mean they were incapable of exerting themselves behind the scenes.

It occurs to me now that in our post-college years, my friends were generally braver than I was. While I returned to my DC-area hometown and prepared for a fairly safe career as a bureaucrat, they plunged into the worlds of journalism and teaching. They all struggled some in the mid-1970s job market. The one friend whom I always thought had a real shot at fame, the aspiring journalist, is still obscure to this day. She lacked nothing in talent, drive, and ambition, but she could have used more luck. I remember how excited I was for her when she seemed on the verge of launching a reporting career in DC. One day I  accompanied her to the office of a small publication, a local sports magazine, for which she had written a free-lance article. That rag folded under dubious circumstances, as someone apparently made off with the start-up money. Sadly, that seemed to be the story of my friend’s life. She started her own print newsletter, eventually to be superseded by digital ones. She had some great ideas for free-lance articles, but even when she scored the necessary interviews, they weren’t published. She moved away for her husband’s career, raised a family, and finally caught on with a mid-west newspaper, but worked mostly for free.

The teachers also had their share of struggles, given the state of education in their mostly rural jurisdictions. They learned their craft, slowly but surely. There was no such thing as leisure time for these young educators―they barely had a moment to write those letters. After-school hours were taken up with counseling students and preparing lessons. Some progress could be detected in their letters, as the tone moved from exhausted to merely stressed. The kids they described as their “problem children” gradually became less problematic.

Some letters contained bad news, and I can even say there were a few nervous breakdowns. I believe this was characteristic of the baby boom generation. We put so much pressure on ourselves to equal our peerless parents of the Greatest Generation, but we didn’t benefit from the same booming postwar economy that lifted them. I knew one girl who got so comfortable in college (or more accurately, scared of the real world) that she stayed on and took courses beyond the ones required for her degree. She clung to that academic shelter until the college kicked her out. Then she started running through part-time jobs, and managed to get fired from substitute teaching and waitressing. The last I heard, her parents were still taking care of her.

There were a few genuine tragedies along the way. A friend of mine since junior high, who to my chagrin always outperformed me academically in school, went to the state university and fell apart after being sexually assaulted on campus. She started writing me weird poems. I also received a letter from her younger sister, advising me that much of what I was hearing from my friend were lies. Soon she dropped out of college and had to be hospitalized in a psychiatric facility. After her release, she married hastily, had two children, became an abused wife, and was getting divorced around the time her siblings were getting married. “I made a mess of my life,” she wrote plaintively.

Sometimes the breakdowns were slow-moving. My best friend during my final year at college was one of the most stable and sensible girls I knew. She progressed farther as a teacher than any of the others, from junior high to the college level. You would think that having mastered classrooms full of hormonal twelve-and-thirteen-year-olds would prepare her for any subsequent challenge. As a professor and a dean, she published some articles about educational theory, but I’m guessing the writing part of her career dried up after a while. She may have felt her ideas were unappreciated, although I had never known her to be a fanatic. At any rate, she committed suicide by self-immolation, making the local news for just a day. I find myself reading and re-reading her letters, trying to glimpse between the lines any hint of the girl who would be capable of such an act.

I treated my best friends rather unfairly in my college novel and its sequel. It’s true they mostly stayed sequestered in the dorm on Saturday nights, the way I depicted them, drowning their loneliness in popcorn and soft drinks and gaining weight, while the big shots of the college turned up their noses at them. They didn’t actually plot ways of getting back at those snobs, as far as I know. I made up the scenes in which they crashed a Homecoming dance, fixed school elections, and finally set the spark to a more serious eruption of violence on campus.

Sycophants takes up the story several years later. My heroine, Imogene, has gotten a foothold in a film production company run by her dynamic former college roommate. She writes a movie script called “The Nondescripts,” to commemorate a crowd she was friendly with in college but avoided embracing totally. Imogene’s screenplay never gets produced as a feature, merely turning up as a few scenes of backstory in an ongoing movie project. When Imogene calls on the actual “nondescripts” to play themselves in those scenes, they are stars for a day.

The letters my real friends wrote back then are anything but “nondescript.” They are vital and ambitious, if sometimes anguished. I’d forgotten how alive we all were in those days. My secret drawer provides a disorganized jumble of memories, literally falling apart, but more meaningful than any e-mail trail will ever be.

Forcing Romance

In my continuing effort to understand the popularity of the romance genre (and tamp down my jealousy, since I can’t seem to write in that vein), it has occurred to me that some stories try too hard to fit the mold.

I consider myself a fan of chick-lit, but I define that as any story that is woman-oriented, whether it has a happy ending or not. I prefer stories that skirt romance without necessarily following all the rules of the genre. For example, I was intrigued by the movie version of The Devil Wears Prada, based on the 2003 novel by Lauren Weisberger. It starts with an unusual premise and setting, featuring a rather innocent but ambitious heroine whom I easily identified with. Andrea, whose friends call her Andy, is an aspiring journalist who moves to New York after college graduation and gets a job at a fashion magazine, despite her own lack of interest in fashion. She works her tail off for a self-centered, insanely demanding boss, Miranda Priestly, who can never be contradicted or overruled because she controls the entire fashion magazine scene. Andy finds herself failing at the job, until she hits on a solution: she will become a fashion plate herself. This neutralizes not only her boss, but her nasty colleague Emily, who has continually belittled Andy for her lack of style.

Strangely enough, Emily grew on me, despite being as mean as blazes. Judging by some reviews I’ve read, I’m not the only one who found her more intriguing at times than Andy. At least Emily speaks her mind. She’s the one who gets stabbed in the back when Andy starts to become the crazy boss’s favorite. Still, Andy pays the price, losing the love of her idealistic boyfriend, who preferred the unstylish version of her. There’s some hope for a reconciliation at the end, after Andy impulsively quits her job during a trip to Paris for fashion week. However, it’s not certain that the boyfriend will “forgive” her.

When I became aware that there was a sequel in book form, published in 2013 (Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns), I downloaded it. The story picks up a decade later, when Andy and Emily, both having escaped from Miranda Priestly’s reign of terror, have become partners in a successful wedding magazine. Andy is married with a baby daughter. Her husband, an investor in her new project, is obviously more supportive of her fashion-oriented lifestyle than her old boyfriend could ever be. This seemingly ideal setup goes sour when Emily and the perfect husband join forces to sell the business to Priestly, striking a lucrative deal behind Andy’s back. A betrayed and shattered Andy breaks up with both the husband and the business partner.

If the rest of the novel dealt realistically with Andy’s efforts to get back on her feet and find love again, it would have continued to engage me. Instead, there is a happy ending that, for my money, is tacked-on and not adequately explained. I could see it coming a mile away, when the original boyfriend, Alex, returns to the city from a teaching stint in the boondocks and keeps managing to run into Andy. They get involved again, predictably enough, but why? What about the issues that broke them up in the first place?

This sort of forced romance is nothing new. It was going on in the nineteenth century, when Charles Dickens, in an effort to satisfy his serial-reading public, came up with three different endings for Great Expectations. Most readers wanted the star-crossed pair, Pip and Estella, to live happily ever after. That would have been unrealistic, considering that Estella was damaged goods. She had been raised by an embittered, jilted woman for the sole purpose of breaking men’s hearts, and that was all she was capable of doing. Dickens seemed torn between artistic integrity and the desire to please his audience. Since he was never financially comfortable, I’m sure there were also commercial considerations. In the final version, the pair reunites at the end without falling blindly into each other’s arms. The best Estella can do is assure Pip that they will always be friends, even when they are apart.

Some hedging along those lines, when Andy reconnects with Alex in Weisberger’s sequel, would have made logical sense. What has changed between them, except that he’s recently broken up with his girlfriend and Andy’s marriage has collapsed, making them both available? This was the same man whom, by her own account, she had shared everything with for six years, only to be dumped without warning. He kicked her to the curb even after she had quit the fashion job that he thought had changed her too much. That lifestyle, in his opinion, had made her “too eager to do what everyone else wanted.” She wondered, What does that even mean? Good question. Maybe it meant she was learning that a grownup must answer to others besides herself. Or maybe, deep down, he was offended that she made more money than he did.

At any rate, he had refused to elaborate on what he meant. He accepted a job with an idealistic nonprofit, Teach for America, and moved to Mississippi, leaving her behind with barely a goodbye. As she recalls later: “He hadn’t called a single time, and the only contact had been a curt ‘Thanks so much for remembering. Hope you’re well’ e-mail in response to a long, emotional and in hindsight humiliating voice mail she left for his 24th birthday.”

Who was he to decide she was worthy of his attention again? One thing I hope all women take from the rapidly developing “Me-too” movement is that it isn’t only about sexual harassment. It’s also about respecting women’s choices in other areas, even if they turn out to be wrong. The romance genre is full of ends that supposedly justify the means. The man, possessing superior insight, pinpoints the woman’s hang-ups on first meeting her. In the course of the story, he turns out to be right. The message seems to be that if only the woman had obeyed him without question from the beginning, she would have saved herself a lot of time and stress. Heaven forbid she should forge her own path and learn from her own experiences.

Andy had certainly changed and grown in the time they had been apart, but what about Alex? He had returned to the city and started teaching at a progressive school that paid more than his previous job. He was aware of Andy’s life circumstances through e-mail blasts from her mother. He had been forced to leave the nonprofit world because he needed to earn more, especially since his former girlfriend had made noises about wanting a baby. I expected that Andy, as a parent herself, might take that opportunity to point out that as one gets older and responsibilities pile up, there are more and more benefits to having a job that pays the bills.

Andy can’t help recalling “the resentment, neglect, lack of sex and affection” that had characterized the end of their relationship. Yet she says, “I think I’ll always love him.” Approximately a year and a half after her marital and business breakup, she has a freelance writing career going and is dating someone perfectly nice, but for reasons she can’t quite pinpoint, she’s not really into him. At this point we are 95% through the book, and I’m asking myself, when is Alex going to stop being a jerk so that Andy can take him back without sacrificing her integrity?

Never, as it turns out, because Andy keeps letting him off the hook. Rather creepily, Alex jokes about stalking her, physically and on Facebook. He summons her one morning from her regular writing spot in a café, fabricating an emergency (which should have frightened her to death, since she has left her young child at home with a babysitter).

Gradually, Andy buys into the idea that they were “meant to be,” an opinion expressed by Alex’s brother. (Do male opinions always carry more weight?) Alex suggests they take their new relationship slowly. That would be sensible, in view of his history of mistreating her. If Andy agreed with that, and demanded an explanation of his former cruelty, I would find the story more satisfying. This woman, with all her business acumen and ambition, would have the potential to be a fabulous role model. Instead, she does the romantic genre thing and declares that caution is for losers; she would prefer to dive into this “second chance” relationship with reckless abandon. All I can do as a reader is sigh and say, come on, ladies. We can do better than this.

Using Our Powers For Good

A skillful writer has the power to change things, for better or for worse. Assuming we’re all getting more skillful at this process through obsessive practice, how are we using that power? Are we writing sagas that mesmerize the world, or exposés that shake up the establishment? Not too likely, although it would be nice. Most of us have to settle for entertaining a few readers or sharing some of our hard-earned wisdom once in a while. Even such modest efforts should be based on reason and intellect. Hopefully, like doctors, we “first do no harm.”

These days, thanks to unfettered social media, the power of expression is becoming more and more of a high-stakes game. The freedom to impart and receive information is the foundation of our democracy, yet that democracy is being buffeted by an equally strong freedom to spread misinformation. If the public doesn’t have sufficient knowledge or judgment to distinguish one from the other, we’re all in trouble. To make things worse, we have a president who believes he has the power to decide what reality is. Anything that doesn’t pamper his ego or confirm his greatness is “false news.” He has sufficient enablers in high places to bring the United States perilously close to his ultimate dream, a Fascist dictatorship under his control. For this reason, it has never been more important for writers to speak truth to power. That means using their own powers to promote decency and truth, to counteract the poison that is emanating from the top and pervading everything.

Unfortunately, dangerous extremists are often skilled at talking or wielding a pen. For example, Alex Jones, the main voice of Infowars Network, is a crackpot but also an effective communicator. He combines wild imagination with political hatred, and feeds it to gullible followers who add fuel to the fire as they pass it along. Here is a verbatim quote: “When I think about all the children Hillary Clinton has personally murdered and chopped up and raped … yeah, you heard me right. Hillary Clinton has personally murdered children.” He paints a vivid picture for a receptive audience that is predisposed to believe the worst about someone they hate.

We know of at least one idiot who took action based on this report. Not for a minute, it appears, did he stop to think how plausible it would be for a former First Lady, US Senator, and Secretary of State to operate a child sex ring in plain sight for many years without being detected. He never asked himself why a woman who is a mother and grandmother herself would want to murder children. He located the pizza restaurant where Clinton’s nefarious operation was supposedly going on. Armed to the teeth, he burst into the place, and confronted … employees who were busy making pizza for their customers. Even now, he and many others reportedly still believe the sex ring he expected to find is operating in a diabolically subtle way among the pasta-spinners.

The times are so perilous that we might be excused for thinking fiction-writing is too trivial and takes too long. But stories that illustrate timeless verities tend to last longer than the headlines. It would be great if we could all find a way to convey the great truths of our times. Admittedly, we’re more likely to indulge in petty vindictiveness than earth-shattering revelations. What fiction writer hasn’t used thinly-disguised characters to satirize people who have slighted him or her? Yet those personal slights are injustices, all the same.

One of the story lines in Sycophants, my current novel-in-progress, makes use of an old friendship from my college days. We were drawn together as fellow English majors and aspiring writers, although she was the aggressive type and I was not. While I dabbled in poetry and the literary magazine, she was editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. I was conscientious about my studies, while she concentrated on her extra-curricular life and barely graduated. Still, I admired her greatly. It was the Watergate era, and many young journalists fancied themselves a budding Woodward and/or Bernstein.

The ambitious editor made a big splash with one particular piece, a student survey of professors’ competence and popularity. The survey was particularly cruel to one of our English teachers. This man was my honors thesis adviser for a paper about Sylvia Plath, the poet and author of The Bell Jar, who famously attempted suicide as a college student, and succeeded in the act about ten years later. After the survey appeared, my friend was ostracized by the English department, and denied any chance for future references.

A few years after we graduated, we learned that my former adviser had committed suicide. Without knowing the exact circumstances, I can only speculate about what led to the tragedy. It was rumored that he had failed to get tenure, and that his wife had left him. My friend is a good person at heart, and she certainly didn’t intend for that to happen. No one can prove a direct connection between what she wrote and the tragedy. Still, I wouldn’t want something like that on my conscience. It could be that Karma, or the writing gods, have repaid her in some ways. She eventually went to work for a small mid-west newspaper, writing some great investigative stuff but for very little pay, constantly plagued by online trolls who belittled her progressive views.

I typically turn to sports when real life gets too heavy. We sports fans should be able to insulate ourselves from the worst of the daily news by watching and analyzing games, since they don’t have life and death implications. Unfortunately, some fans treat them as if they did. Many of the debates that rage on my favorite baseball sites these days devolve too easily into the ugly and personal. That in turn leads to writing that is highly imaginative, but not particularly informed or analytical.

Predictably, my Washington Nationals are coming off yet another bitter playoff disappointment, leading to widespread recriminations that have yet to subside three months later. It’s risky to defend, for example, a catcher (Matt Wieters) or a manager (Dusty Baker) who is presumed to have made the boneheaded plays or decisions that torpedoed the team. Someone is sure to question your sanity or your morals. A “humorist” will write that the person you’re defending must have some major dirt on you. (Nude photos are the most popular choice). Many fans think they’re mind-readers, and can judge by a player’s demeanor that he just isn’t into it, or is only doing it for the money. Urban legends about players’ personal lives abound on social media. It’s almost a given that when a star player leaves a team, he had to get out of town quickly because he was having an affair with another star’s wife, and it was about to be revealed in all its sordidness.

Does this style of debate remind you of anyone prominent in the news these days? Even in sports, we could benefit by sticking to substantive issues and having informed discussions, but that wouldn’t be Trumpian. It’s easier to insult someone than to actually know what you’re talking about. All in all, social media spreads democracy with one hand and chokes it with the other. A reader has as much responsibility as the writer, perhaps more, to distinguish wheat from chaff.