Friday, June 10, 2005

You're Writing About What?

my brother Jon and I are ard at work on the novel which I tend to describe as “a comedy about McCarthy era.”

Most common response? “What could be funny about that era?” Well, even back then, there were folks who found humor in it. Funniest of all, probably, was The Investigator, now available in its entirety on the Internet, a radio play by Canadian playwright Reuben Ship in which McCarthy dies in a plane crash, and starts investigating subversives in heaven. And you can find humor in anything if you're callous enough.

Still, it's true, that period remains harder to laugh at than some. Relatively few people even today are going to chuckle indulgently and say "Heh, heh, that Elia Kazan -- what a joker!"

Another interesting response, which I got today: "Is there a market for that?"

Interesting in that the answer is invariably "Yes and no." You are essentially always doing something there's no market for. There's a market for art in general - there are going to be a certain number of paintings bought and sold every year, a certain number of literary novels published. But your novel, or your painting? In a word, no. Maybe after the fact, but not before or during.

You can go to a publisher and say, I want to write a bio of Truman - and he'll say yeah, there's a market, or no there isn't. An editor may even come to you, and say "Richards, the time is right for a book on the 69 Mets, or global warming...or 9/11." But you can't sit down and think, "I know - people have been looking for a good story about little three-foot-tall creatures trying to decide what to do with a magic ring -- the first person to write that one will make a mint."

It's only later, if the novel is good enough, that everyone starts saying, "Hey, you gotta read that book about the Catcher in whatever - it really tells it like it is about teenagers and phonies."

Or, "Hey, you gotta read that comic novel about the McCarthy era.”


J. Newberry said...

What's that new Philip Roth novel about Lindberg becoming president? Is that comedy?

Can the McCarthy era be funny? Well--of course! But, the writer's job is to make it funny. I think that it's a strange, curious trait of our culture: we think of anything funny as somehow "lower" than something that "serious" or "sober." Read Blake. Read Dante. Read Milton. Heck, read Shakespeare. All of those writers have laugh-out-loud moments. Why not Tad Richards and why not the McCarthy era?

ylla2026 said...

Apparently I'm a lot more calloused than most, since my first reaction wasn't "What's funny about that?". It was more along the lines of, "Holy crap, that's a great idea!" But then, I didn't live through the era, and I already see McCarthyism as ridiculously comedic. :)

And it works. There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, but it's not really farcical. There's plenty of sobering moments hidden in the comedy.

Tad Richards said...

Roth's novel is "The Plot Against America," and though there's a comic edge to all his writing, this one is pretty grim. And inspired. Roth is one of our greatest novelists, and deserves the Nobel Prize. His comic masterpiece on an unlikely subject is "Operation Shylock," in which a novelist named Philip Roth goes to Israel, and runs into an impostor - someone calling himself "Philip Roth," who want to be the Moses who leads the Jews out of Israel and back to Europe. It's terrifying, but it's mostly laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Tad Richards said...

And Jeff...your favorites are spot on, except for "Key Largo," an overrated, terrible movie. Hard to believe, with a cast like that. But true.

The magnificent Bogart-Bacall movies are "To Have and Have Not" and "The Big Sleep."

Both with great stories behind them. "The Big Sleep," from the Raymond Chandler novel, had a plot so convoluted that the writers couldn't follow it. At one point they called in Chandler and asked him who killed the chauffeur, and he told them it was Eddie Mars. They pointed out that it couldn't have been Eddie Mars. Chandler went back, read the book again, and had to admit that he had no idea who killed the chauffeur. He couldn't begin to follow the plot himself.

My favorite line: Marlowe, after the nymphomaniac younger daughter has collapsed in his arms: "She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up." And this one, which actually improves on Chandler's brilliant dialog (the screenplay was written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman). In the book, the parting dialog between Marlowe and stone bitch Agnes goes:

"Well, so long, copper. Wish me luck. I got a raw deal."

"Like hell you did."

In the movie, it's:

"Well, so long, copper. Wish me luck. I got a raw deal."

"Yeah, your kind always does."

Howard Hawks directed both movies. Hawks and Hemingway were friends, and during a fishing trip in Idaho, Hawks tried to convince Hemingway that he should come to Hollywood to work on a screenplay. "There's so much money in movies these days, Hem!" And Hemingway needed money in those days, but he said he just wasn't interested. He knew how to write novels, he wasn't going to try something new. Besides, he said, he didn't like movies much. Every time he saw a movie made from a good book, it came out as shit. "That's the way it is," Hawks told him. "Generally a good book will make a bad movie, but a bad book can make a terrific movie. I'll prove it -- I'll take the worst piece of shit you ever wrote and turn it into a great movie."

"OK," said Hemingway, "What's the worst piece of shit I ever wrote?"

"To Have and Have Not," said Hawks. "No question about it."

They spent the day tossing around ideas for a movie adaptation, but ultimately Hemingway said he wasn't interested, and sold the rights to Hawks.

Hawks' parting zinger: "All right, you son of a bitch. I'll get Faulkner to write the screenplay. He's a better writer that you, anyway."

Faulkner did work on the screenplay. Best line from this one, Lauren Bacall's immortal:

"You know you don't have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything, and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow."