Thursday, July 19, 2012

Walking Papers: Francesco Clark

Few memoirs have moved me as emotionally as the book, Walking Papers, which was written by Francesco Clark. In the late 1980's, Francesco was a twenty four year old man enjoying a dazzling post college life in New York City. He was about to begin a lucrative job at a public relations firm after a successful stint at Harper’s Bazaar Magazine. One night in May, Francesco escaped the city for his summer rental in the Hamptons and decided to take a late night swim. This evening would prove to be pivotal and life altering as he accidently dove into the shallow end of the pool, hitting his chin and shattering his spine. Francesco was told that he would never walk again or function independently. The book graphically chronicles Francesco’s recovery process as a C4 quadriplegic and his coming to terms with the ramifications of his injury. Buoyed by the undying love and support of his close knit Italian American family, Francisco struggles to regain movement and is fearless in his determination to explore experimental surgeries and therapies. As a reader, I was astounded at the apathy and negativity of his doctors and therapists who told Francesco to simply accept his new life. This story moved me to tears and ignited a desire to assist people such as Francesco in my own small way. Readers learn that in the era of technology and stem cell research that a spinal injury does not necessarily lead to a life in purgatory. Ultimately, Francesco Clark has flourished in the years since his injury and is carrying the torch as an Ambassador for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. He is also a successful entrepreneur of a skin care line which proceeds benefit the above foundation. I hope you will read this amazing memoir because you will be changed as a human being by reading this exceptional story of one person’s mission to survive. You will be grateful for your own blessings and Francesco’s memoir may inspire you to give to others. Finally, books such as this one are the reason I write on this blog; hoping to promote a love of reading and compassion for others through the written word.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Q & A: Rex Pickett (Sideways: The Play)

Interview:   Rex Pickett

How did the theatrical production of your novel, Sideways, come to fruition at the Ruskin Theater in LA?

I was doing a book signing for my new novel Vertical at Pinot Days, a huge wine event held in the football field-sized Barker Hangar, across the street from the Ruskin Group Theater.  I was approached by Jason Matthews, a person associated with the Ruskin Group Theater.  He asked me if I had ever thought about doing a stage production of Sideways.  I said no, but I’d be happy to take a meeting about it.  We met a few days later.  I liked what he said.  Then I met with the whole team at Ruskin:  Managing Director Mikey Myers, Founder John Ruskin, some others.  They were very passionate about a stage production, and I responded positively to that.  I also responded to the fact that I would have total creative control – over the final script, the hiring of the director, etc., so I said:  Okay, let’s do it.  I also agreed to do it because I knew there would be a final product.  Writing screenplays for hire is a drag because 99% of the time your work just ends up mired in development, and never sees the screen.  This would be something real, the reason I made indie films back in the ‘80s.

First I had to read the novel, which I hadn’t done in 7 years.  I was surprised how dialogue-driven it was, and how that would transfer to the stage.   With no restrictions I wrote a first draft.  We held a cold read.  There were notes.  Mostly they were about how to compress the play, get it down to a reasonable length.  Then came the director hiring process.  After some unfelicitious interviews with some award-winning older gentlemen who treated me condescendingly, I ultimately chose a second-time director in Amelia Mulkey.  The two of us went to work on the script.  We never fought.  She’s amazing.  The whole crew at the Ruskin Group Theater was amazing, very supportive, never imposing their vision, only helping me bring my vision to the stage.  It was a total collaborative process from start to finish, a year and a half after they approached me to opening night.  The single most rewarding creative experience in all the things I’ve done.

The film adaptation of Sideways was a huge critical and commercial success.  How closely were you involved in the creation of the movie?

Alexander Payne (the director and co-adapter) and his writing partner Jim Taylor gave me every draft of the script and were very interested in my input.  My only main contribution was Maya’s speech on wine delivered by Virginia Madsen.  I didn’t write it, but I urged them to write a complementary speech to Miles’s soliloquy on Pinot that precedes her now famous one after reading two drafts where her speech didn’t exist at all.  I also had a little something to do with the ending.  Other than having created the universe with my novel, I didn’t have a whole lot to do with the movie.   Payne runs a tight ship, and once they get past the script and into pre-production there isn’t a whole hell of a lot the novelist is required to do.

What was your reaction to your original idea becoming an Academy Award winning film?

It was nominated for 5 Academy Awards, but only won for Best Adapted Screenplay, not Best Picture.  Which, of course, made me happiest of all.  Even more than Best Picture.  Exultation was my reaction.  Surprise, shock and exultation.  After what I went through in the ‘90s, chronicled in a very long 7-part blog on, I felt like the proverbial Phoenix risen from the proverbial ashes.

I read that you had submitted your manuscript of Sideways numerous times for publication and were rejected.  How did you persevere?

I blogged about this extensively on in a piece called My Life on Spec: the Writing of Sideways.  I highly recommend your readers read it.  Go to “Blogs” and then to “December.”  It’s 15,000 words long and, for an aspiring, not for the faint of heart.

Are the characters, Miles and Jack autobiographical?

Sideways is written in the first person from the standpoint of Miles, so it’s very personal, very autobiographical.  Jack is based on a close friend of mine, Roy Gittens.

In the novel, the Miles and Jack take a momentous trip to the Santa Ynez Valley in California. Can you describe the beauty of this area to readers? (FYI: The blogger is a huge Napa Valley fan).

The Santa Ynez Valley sort of reminds me a little of what I imagine Tuscany must be like, albeit having never been there, and with the added bonus of being nestled close to an ocean.  It’s a sleepy place, sort of a “hick” place really, but it’s not overrun like Napa/Sonoma, which is also incredibly beautiful.  There’s just something tranquil about wine country, whether it be the Santa Ynez Valley, Napa/Sonoma, or the Willamette Valley.

Why did you want to become a writer and who are some artists of any genre who continue to inspire you?

I didn’t want to become a writer necessarily; it wanted to inhabit me.  It came from inside.  And then it was all about film.  I’ve been inspired as much, if not more so, by film than by literature.

I know it sounds self-serving, but I’m inspired by the work of Alexander Payne in U.S. cinema, but very few others.  Fatih Akin in Germany.  Marco Bellochio out of Italy.  And I’m trying to read the great Chilean writer Roberto Bolano.  Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye still moves me.

Can you discuss your new novel, Vertical, and the mother/son theme that it conveys?

It’s a long story.  My mother had a massive stroke that left her full left-side paralyzed and wheelchair-dependent in ’90.  My younger brother wrested control of her care and, more or less, squandered her life savings in two years.  I had to assume control of her care and it wasn’t easy.  I wrote a script titled The Road Back, inspired by this.  It was sold, but never made.  Then when Sideways became successful, my publishing agent twisted my arm into novelizing The Road Back.  I did so reluctantly, and it was a horrible experience with Alfred A. Knopf.  The book wasn’t working, so I got out of the deal and morphed the mother/son story into what is now the Sideways sequel Vertical.

As a successful writer, what is your advice for individuals who are just beginning in this career?

Follow me on Twitter @RexPickett because I Tweet #Writing tips all the time.  First of all, it’s a life, not an avocation.  You might make it sooner than others, but more than likely it’s going to be later, and it’s going to be a tough road.  Be mindful of the marketplace, but try to find your own voice.  Read copiously.  Read great novels, read great screenplays, and see great movies.  Develop an aesthetic sensibility.  Writing and experiencing what great writers have written or great filmmakers have made feed and nourish one another.  Don’t complain.  Writing owes you nothing.

Do you have plans for a third novel and what are some current ideas that excite you as a creative person?

I didn’t have plans for a third novel until I was approached to do one.  And that’s all I can say on that front, except that it will be, if I elect to do it, Part III of the Sideways trilogy.

I’m excited about Sideways: the Play and where it will travel next.  It could easily consume the next couple years of my life.  And there’s a script that I just optioned that I would like to direct titled Repairman.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Guest Post: Professor Emily Stinson: Signs of Life

Signs of Life Review – Emily Stinson

Death is a subject not many of us like to discuss. It makes us uncomfortable and fearful to talk or think of death because it is the one thing that we cannot control. None of us know when or where it will strike. We like to imagine we will all live a long life, but the truth of the matter is that none of us are guaranteed that. Accidents, disease, wrong place at the wrong time, any number of things can happen to us or our loved ones, altering (or ending) the course of our lives. And when we lose a loved one, we are forced to re-imagine and reinvent our "normal" lives, without that loved one. The pain and cycle of grief is a personal journey, different for everyone, and extremely difficult to endure, much less overcome.

Natalie Taylor, in her memoir, Signs of Life bravely details her journey through grief when she, at age twenty-four and five months pregnant, loses her husband, Josh to a tragic accident. The memoir begins on the night Natalie learns of her husband's death and continues on through the birth of her son, concluding a little over a year after Josh’s accident. Along the way, Natalie grieves and rebuilds her life as a single parent, helped along the way by friends and family.

This is a very difficult read, to be certain, mostly because Natalie’s personable writing style makes it hard to put any kind of emotional distance between author and reader. I felt almost as if Natalie became my friend while reading this. It is always important for memoir writing to connect to its audience, but it is quite different to ask readers to connect to an experience as personal and difficult as death, something that most do everything in their power to avoid thinking about. It is a testament to Natalie that she is able to forge a connection between herself and her reader because the cost to readers is to experience emotions so raw and powerful that it is almost painful to keep reading. I cried almost every time I picked this book up. I often found myself both wanting desperately for the impossible - for Natalie to get Josh back - and simultaneously, appreciating my own husband in ways I never had before. There were moments when I would lay awake reading and stop just to appreciate the snores I heard next to me, that I could reach over and touch a warm and healthy body. It is a shame that it so often takes death to get us to appreciate life.

Natalie's writing style and tone is very conversational and honest. She doesn't save face and hold back her thoughts and feelings about the grieving process itself and the way others treat her, which ranges from overly helpful to outright avoidance. However, Natalie never comes across as whiny or self-absorbed either. Though she has every right to feel wronged and cheated, she doesn't allow herself to go down those paths. Instead, she finds ways to appreciate life and make the best of her circumstances. The birth of her son seems to be something of a turning point for Natalie; where before she was a grieving widow, she now must be a mother. It is her decision that she does not want her son to grow up with a mother who is constantly sad and grieving that seems to draw the line in the sand between whom she was and who she would like to be.

Along with the trials of motherhood, Natalie must also deal with raising a child on her own. When selecting a new parents group to attend, she has to choose between selecting the couples group or the single parents group, not truly fitting into either camp: after all, she is a single mother, but she was married and would still be if it weren't for Josh's accident. Finding her own way seems to be a major theme in Natalie’s story; most do not become a widow in their mid-twenties, and so Natalie must create the rules for this atypical identity. She fields questions about whether her son has a relationship with his father in her grief group, and she has to explain to those who learn of Josh’s death why she doesn’t still wear her wedding ring. I imagine one of the hardest moments for her would have been receiving a letter from social security saying her marriage had been terminated due to Josh's death. How must it have felt for a government agency to tell you your marriage is over?

However, despite the unreal circumstances that Natalie finds herself in, she manages to keep her imagination alive, and it is often a tool she uses to combat grief: present in her story is a cast of imagined characters and scenarios that aid Natalie. After she connects to a particularly touching chapter in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows where Harry must confront the choice between life and death, Natalie imagines herself calling up J.K. Rowling and having a conversation with the famous author about how she, Natalie, is really doing after Josh’s death. There is a scenario where Natalie stars in her own version of The Bachelorette where suitors are tested on their ability to do household chores or care for children rather than woo their bachelorette with flowers and fancy dinners. My personal favorite is Natalie's "fairy mom godmother,” a twist on the traditional fairy godmother who comes to Natalie's aid after her son is born when others say or do the wrong things to help. These imagined "daydreams," so to speak, provide moments of light hearted humor and bring something unique to the memoir.

Another important aspect of the memoir is how Natalie's job helps her through the grieving process. Natalie is a high school English teacher whose creative approach to teaching literature is a treat for all those who have a close connection to the discipline. I’ve spent most of my life with my face buried behind a book, and now I teach English and Composition at the Community College level, so I have a personal and professional investment to not only the study of literature but the teaching of it as well. Despite the fact that it has been a while since I read the texts Natalie teaches – A Separate Peace, Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, among others – and I don’t teach them in my college classes, I appreciate the way Natalie encourages her students to make their understanding of literature personal. Natalie herself sees these texts in a completely different light after Josh’s death. The way these novels connect to her and teach her reminded me why I love this profession and how important it is for us to have a relationship with literature. Sometimes, books are the only guides we have when life gets tough.

Ultimately, this is a story of hope and of appreciating life despite extremely difficult circumstances. I recommend this memoir to all, especially if you've ever suffered a loss and/or if you have a passion for literature. Death is certainly not a fun subject to read and talk about, but it's important for us to have a dialogue about it because it is inevitable. I am thankful to have read this book, even though it led to a lot of tears, because while the center theme is about struggling to rebuild after a tragic death, it also teaches a great deal about the preciousness of life. And that is certainly something we should never ever forget.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Q & A: Natalie Taylor (Author,Signs of Life)

Interview:  Natalie Taylor – Signs of Life

Natalie Taylor is the author of the memoir, Signs of Life, in which she examines losing her husband, Josh, at the age of twenty-four while five months pregnant with their son, Kai.
She is deeply honest and brave in this book, detailing her journey through grief, family dynamics, and new motherhood. As a high school English teacher, Taylor enriches her own writing with references and musings on authors whose words have touched her. This book is a must read and I hope you will enjoy our wonderful interview:

Why did you want to share your story in a memoir and how were you able to get this book published?
I wanted to share my story because one of my biggest challenges in grieving was that I constantly felt like I was alone.  I felt like I was the only 24 year-old widow on the planet.  That makes it hard because grief can make your brain to all sorts of weird things and if you go through those things by yourself, you start to think you’re crazy.  But if you learn about other people who are going through the same thing, you start to realize you’re just being human.  I so badly wanted other people to know that if they had talked to thin air, stared at a calendar suddenly mystified by the concept of time passing, or broken out into tears at the Home Depot check-out line, they were not crazy. 
I was able to get this book published because I am a very lucky person.  I gave it to my brother who is a screenwriter in L.A. and he handed to these guys who handed it to this other guy and that guy handed it to a book agent.  She called me and a few months later, we found an editor.  Every step along the way I kept thinking, “if it only goes this far, I’ll be happy because it means someone out there other than my mother really believes in this book.”  And then it just kept going until a box of hardcover books showed up at my door one day with my name on them. 

How did you balance writing, motherhood, and your career as an English teacher?
This is a two-part answer.  1.  For the first two years of Kai’s life I was so incredibly scared to have any free time, I worked until I was too tired to close my lap-top.  After Kai fell asleep, I could not handle the idea of walking out into a empty house and thinking, “now what?”  And really, I could only clean the kitchen so many times.  So I made a project and decided to write a book.  As exhausting as all of it was, it was better than watching television by myself.

As a writer, what is your schedule and process?
A lot of times I think of stuff when I drive or when I’m in the shower, which may sound bizarre.  But usually I think about something until I really feel like if I don’t write it down, I’ll forget about it.  Sometimes I only have about 30 seconds to type an idea into the computer before my son comes up to me with 16 questions about Egrets.  But then later when I have some time to myself, I go back and write for a while until the thing that was in my head is on a screen where I can shape it and trim it up the way I want to. 
In terms of a schedule, I set a lot of deadlines for myself or else I’d never get anything done.  As an English teacher, I have papers to grade every few weeks, so I typically write in waves and then when papers come in, I dedicate all of my time to those and then eventually get back to the writing. 

What were the inspirations behind the cover images on the hardback and paperback versions of your book?
We wanted something that said, “This book has a sad premise, but it’s going to be okay in the end.”  It’s hard to convince people to read a book when you say, “It’s about this pregnant woman whose husband dies.”  So we wanted a hopeful, uplifting image to help the reader understand that it wasn’t a dark story, because it really isn’t.  It’s more about life than death.

Describe the response of your students when you became a published author.
They asked the best questions.  “Are you going to be on Oprah?!”  “Can we Google you?!”  “Does this mean you are a millionaire?!”  Bless their heart for thinking an author could be a millionaire.  For the most part though, it was business as usual in room 270. 

How has becoming a writer influenced your work as a high school English teacher?
As an English teacher, I constantly say, “Authors make choices.”  Often times we get so wrapped up in the story we forget that there is a puppeteer behind every character and that puppeteer is deciding where the action goes.  Sometimes that is tough to get across to students that someone would spend so much time thinking about these small details in a text.  “What if Fitzgerald just felt like making it rain!  Why does there have to be a reason!?”  They always ask stuff like that.  But there is a reason!  Now I can speak from experience that authors really do make choices.  Of course, I am not an author of literature, but after going through the editing process with an editor, it made me realize how every single detail really does speak to “the work as a whole,” as we say in Lit class.  But, at the same time, these are teenagers and no matter how much experience I do or don’t have as an author, I am still an adult to them, which means I have no idea what I am talking about. 

You were candidly honest in your book. What was the reaction of the real life characters who were depicted in your story?
Incredibly supportive.  That’s the long and the short of it.  I had numerous conversations with people as I was writing the book to make sure I could include the events that I included, names, etc., and all I got was love and support. 

As a bibliophile, I felt a kindred spirit in your numerous literary references.  Can you share some of your most favorite authors and titles?
This is a hard question!  Ranking my favorite books is like ranking my friends—they all bring something wonderful and different into my life.  If I had to say, I absolutely love The Color Purple.  Right after Josh passed away I remember thinking, “no one knows how I feel, no one has ever felt as bad as I have felt,” and then I thought about Celie and her life is way worse than mine.  But Walker is so good that by the end she gives us hope.  I also love The Grapes of Wrath.  I think ever American citizen should read it.  I sincerely believe Barack Obama should lead a book group on The Grapes of Wrath.  (Or Maybe Michelle should do the book group now that I think about it).  But the list is endless.  Every time I read The Great Gatsby I think to myself, “How could one man think of this all by himself.”  I am reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for the first time and I can’t put it down.  To me, reading classic literature is like watching the Olympics.  You just sit back and think, “Wow.  Look at what our species is capable of.”

What is life like since readers last read the epilogue in Signs of Life?
This is so hard to describe because the last time people saw me, the sun was just rising for me, but I still had a long way to go.  Now, life is amazing.  Life after death has given me an appreciation for living that I never had before.  I just like to soak up the little moments like walking Kai in to school, listening to him play with his toys, watching him sound out letters.  We spend a lot of time with our family and friends.  They are still solid as a rock for us. 

What are your current writing projects and do you hope to publish another book?
I have a current project right now, but I’m going to keep it quiet.  But I can tell you that I feel really good about it.  Having a project is fun and I definitely feel at my best when I have something cooking.

**Thank you to Emily Stinson for sharing this amazing book with this me-  Jenny R.