Nov. 17, 2010

In Chandler Country

by Dana Gioia

California night. The Devil's wind,
the Santa Ana, blows in from the east,
raging through the canyon like a drunk
screaming in a bar.
                              The air tastes like
a stubbed-out cigarette. But why complain?
The weather's fine as long as you don't breathe.
Just lean back on the sweat-stained furniture,
lights turned out, windows shut against the storm,
and count your blessings.
                                          Another sleepless night,
when every wrinkle in the bedsheet scratches
like a dry razor on a sunburned cheek,
when every ten-year whiskey tastes like sand,
and quiet women in the kitchen run
their fingers on the edges of a knife
and eye their husbands' necks. I wish them luck.

Tonight it seems that if I took the coins
out of my pocket and tossed them in the air
they'd stay a moment glistening like a net
slowly falling through dark water.
                                                        I remember
the headlights of the cars parked on the beach,
the narrow beams dissolving on the dark
surface of the lake, voices arguing
about the forms, the crackling radio,
the sheeted body lying on the sand,
the trawling net still damp beside it. No,
she wasn't beautiful but at that age
when youth itself becomes a kind of beauty
"Taking good care of your clients, Marlowe?"

Relentlessly the wind blows on. Next door
catching a scent, the dogs begin to howl.
Lean, furious, raw-eyed from the storm,
packs of coyotes come down from the hills
where there is nothing left to hunt.

"In Chandler Country" by Dana Gioia, from Daily Horoscope. © Graywolf Press, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the 27th birthday of a young man whose books have sold more than 20 million copies. That's fantasy novelist Christopher Paolini, (books by this author) born in Southern California (1983). He was homeschooled in Montana by his Montessori-trained mom, who gave him homework specifically designed to stimulate creativity. He first fell in love with books after reading a children's mystery novel where tomato sauce was mistaken for blood. Soon after that, he was reading a lot of Teutonic, Scandinavian, and Old Norse folklore.

He finished coursework for high school at age 15 and decided he would write the book that he had always wanted to read. It would be an archetypal quest story, he knew, a "pure, dyed-in-the-wool hero story," as he called it, one with elves and magic and romance and a secret kingdom and special sword. He started writing the book and was stumped. He decided to take a step back and study the mechanics of writing and the structure of stories. He read all sorts of manuals about plot and characters and scenes. Then he sat down and outlined the entire plot for a trilogy of books. And then he began to write.

The first draft took him a year, and revising the first draft took a second year. His family decided to self-publish the book, entitled Eragon, and when it first came out in 2002 they toured the country to promote it. During one year, they showed up at 135 events, book fairs, bookstores, libraries, schools, places where the teenage Paolini would stand behind a table in a medieval costume, which he described as "red shirt, billowy black pants, lace-up boots, and a jaunty black cap." If he sold 40 books in the course of eight hours, it felt like a good day. The whole experience was really stressful, since his family was risking all their financial future to promote the book, and the book was not selling. They thought they were going to have to sell their house in Paradise Valley, Montana, and move to the city and work regular jobs.

But then the stepson of novelist Carl Hiaasen read the book, loved it, and showed it to Hiaasen, who sent in on to his publishers. Soon, Paolini had huge offers from major U.S. and UK publishers. But first, the book had to go through major revisions, which he called "real torture." He said: "I discovered that editing is really another word for someone ruthlessly tearing apart your work with a big smile, all the while telling you that it will make the book so much better. And it did, though it felt like splinters of hot bamboo being driven into my tender eyeballs."

When his 500-page book appeared in 2003, when Paolini was 19, it went straight to No. 3 on the New York Times best-seller list. And some weeks, it outsold Harry Potter books. He has since written two best-selling sequels, Eldest (2005) and Brisingr (2008).

He said about the composition process: "For me, the time spent plotting out a novel is more important than the actual writing. If you don't have a good story, it's exceedingly unlikely that a good book can be pulled from the morass of ideas floating around in your brain. Typing out Eragon was a rather straightforward affair once I had the plot firmly in hand."

From the archives:

It was on this day in 1558 that Queen Elizabeth I acceded to the English throne. She reigned for 45 years. She took over after the death of her sister, Queen Mary, and so Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, and William Shakespeare are known as Elizabethan authors, and not Maryan authors.

It's the birthday of the man who created Saturday Night LiveLorne Michaels, born in Toronto, Canada (1944). He formed a comedy duo with Hart Pomerantz. In the early '70s, they had their own television variety show, The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour, on Canadian television. They also contracted their talents to comedic acts in the United States, writing for Phyllis Diller, Lily Tomlin, Joan Rivers, and Woody Allen. They wrote for the NBC show Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, and then NBC asked Michaels to come up with a comedy show to replace the Johnny Carson reruns that aired Saturday nights at 11:30 p.m.

Michaels recruited talent from all sorts of places. Dan Aykroyd was a fellow Canadian, and Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner had worked on the National Lampoon show. Muppet creator Jim Henson created sketches for the show, and recent Harvard grad Al Franken was signed on as a writer. Michaels put together the first season, 1975–1976, and won an Emmy for it.

It's the birthday of filmmaker Martin Scorsese, born 1942 in the Flushing section of Queens (1942), who went to seminary school with plans of becoming a priest, but he was expelled for roughhousing during prayers and went to NYU and majored in film instead.

He got a lot of attention for early films like Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976), but they didn't make much money, and his musical New York, New York(1977) was a complete flop. Scorsese thought his career might be over. He began drinking too much and wound up in the hospital. Robert DeNiro came to visit him there and told him to get his act together and make the movie they'd been talking about for years, about the boxer Jake LaMotta. Scorsese agreed, and he poured the next few years of his life into that movie, trying to get every detail exactly right. When the studio finally demanded that he send the picture to the labs for printing, Scorsese almost took his name off the project because in a minor scene in a bar he couldn't hear one of the characters order a Cutty Sark. He knew that was exactly the kind of drink that character would have ordered, and he wanted people to be able to hear it. He got his way, and Raging Bull was a big success when it came out in 1980. It's now considered one of the best films of the decade.

His other films include Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), and The Departed (2006). Martin Scorsese said, "Movies ... fulfill a spiritual need that people have to share a common memory."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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