Mourir Auprès De Toi – Spike Jonze

Although Mourir Auprès De Toi (To Die By Your Side) was made in 2012 I only discovered it in a recent article on Open Culture. It’s a stop motion film directed by Spike Jonze in collaboration with Olympia Le-Tan (she of the much coveted and beautiful handbags), a fairytale about characters in books that come alive when the lights go out.

The setting is Shakespeare & Company, the iconic Parisian bookshop, and the characters are Mina Harker and the skeletal Macbeth. They fall madly in lust from afar but tragically Macbeth loses his head and then falls into the sea only to be chased by Moby Dick. Mina heroically saves Macbeth, the film ends and the credits show the couple hilariously in flagrante.

It’s a perfect marriage of Le-Tan’s craft, Jonze’ imagination, and Shakespeare & Co.’s inspiration, and just on the right side of literary macabre to be suitable for All Hallow’s Eve.

The Girls – Emma Cline

Emma Cline is just twenty-seven and already the recipient of a three book deal worth $2 million after a bidding war between twelve publishers. That’s the kind of thing that rarely happens these days, and even when it does it’s no guarantee of quality or originality (I’m looking at you Garth Risk Hallberg, AKA the stark naked emperor). Thankfully in Cline’s case, both the advance and the accompanying hype surrounding her debut novel The Girls are very much deserved.

Evie Boyd is a middle-aged woman in between jobs who is taking a break and staying in her friend’s house. She seems as if she is on the periphery of life, working as a carer, ‘cultivating a genteel invisibility in sexless clothes, my face blurred with the pleasant ambiguous expression of a lawn ornament.’ Her friend’s teenage son Julian shows up unexpectedly one night together with his girlfriend Sasha, disrupting Evie’s solitude. Julian knows about Evie’s past, her time in a cult in the late 1960s in California, and over the next few days prompted by Julian’s lurid interest, Evie begins to reflect on what happened.

In 1969 Evie is fourteen, alienated and lonely, blossoming sexually, and scarily impressionable. She is captivated by Suzanne, a glamorously cool older girl who lives in a commune with a guru and his band of followers. The commune is a fictionalised version of the Manson Family, and the charismatic leader Russell, with his long hair, buckskin shirt and failed music career, is based on Charles Manson. Evie is gradually drawn deeper into the cult, taking drugs and partying, sleeping with Russell, until she lives full-time at the ranch and is embroiled in increasingly dangerous behaviour, rolling towards the inevitable conclusion (a murder based on the infamous Tate-LaBianca killings).

A cold cynic might say that basing the novel on the Manson murders is a smart commercial move. Manson still holds a certain level of fascination and this handy reference point may have proved irresistible to publishers. However Cline’s writing is what makes this a memorable book. Her ability to conjure up the emotional turmoil and insecurity of a fourteen year old girl is masterful, and at times the perfectly observed detail in her writing creates an intensely visual experience. No wonder the film rights were snapped up before publication.

The Girls is an accomplished debut novel, all the more so given Cline’s young age. In a business where most published writers under the age of thirty are viewed with deep suspicion, she has set herself up for an already lauded and interesting career.

My Writing Day

I’m always fascinated by other writers’ creative processes, whether they are early birds or night owls, whether they write every day (some don’t) and the kind of word count they expect at the end of a day’s work. I suppose because writing is such a solitary occupation it’s interesting to see how other people approach it.

I have the four volumes of The Paris Review Interviews and regularly dip into them for inspiration, but I’m always on the lookout for similar resources. Over the last couple of months The Guardian has been publishing a series in the Saturday Review entitled ‘My Writing Day’, and Rose Tremain, William Boyd, Ian Rankin, Hilary Mantel and Anne Enright are some of the writers featured thus far.

Anne Enright’s day starts at 9am, finishes at 11pm and is filled with the kind of faffing that every writer is familiar with. ‘I never manage to write fiction in the morning. This is why I think mornings are wasted, and panic every afternoon.’

Hilary Mantel describes a long day filled with intense concentration, focussed work and a huge output. On a good day she can produce ‘thousands of words across half a dozen projects – and perhaps new projects.’

Ian Rankin was working on a new book when he was interviewed, and he had written the first draft in twenty-seven days. My heart sank when I read this (my first draft took me a year!) but thankfully he says, ‘It’s rough – really just me checking the plot works. The second draft sees me polish the prose, fix faults in chronology and geography, and add meat to the bones of my characters.’

It’s an interesting series for anyone interested in how the writing process works. I have also done some writer interviews on The Multiverse and you can take a look at how Peter Murphy, Kevin Barry and Declan Burke approach their writing day.

Slade House – David Mitchell

Back in 2014 David Mitchell used Twitter to tell a short story, and in 280 tweets over the course of a week he showed the right way for an author to engage with social media. The story that emerged from this process was called The Right Sort and it’s the first chapter of Mitchell’s seventh novel, Slade House, published last year.

Slade House is Mitchell’s take on the classic haunted house story. Every nine years a tiny door appears on Slade Alley, behind which is a huge house surrounded by a beautiful garden. The house is only accessible for a day, and when it vanishes it takes someone with it, leading to unexplained disappearances. The novel is told in five chapters by five different narrators, from 1979 to 2015, and through their eyes we come to understand that Slade House is an illusion, set up as bait to lure in victims for the house’s owners.

In true Mitchell style, characters and references from his other novels appear throughout, and the book is widely seen to be a companion piece to 2014’s The Bone Clocks, featuring the Anchorites and Horologists from that fantasy world.

A very dear friend of mine bought me the most gorgeous hardback US first edition and I raced through the 238 pages in a couple of hours. It’s a creepy little book which reminded me at times of The Turn of the Screw and Les Enfants Terribles, but with a lot more humour.

 

Narratively

My version of reading the Sunday papers is browsing through the latest posts on both Longreads and Longform, sites which feature long-form journalism or creative writing from around the web. I’ve often discovered writers that I now follow and publications I’ve never heard of before.

Over the weekend I discovered Narratively. In their own words: ‘Created in September 2012, Narratively is a digital publication and storytelling studio that prides itself on looking beyond the news headlines and clickbait, focusing instead on ordinary people with extraordinary stories.’ The site features video, photography, comics, and writing, and has received numerous awards and accolades.

I spent an hour browsing and found some gems:

‘Keeping New York Weird’ by Grace Bello – A profile of New York ‘comedic punks’, performance artists Tobly and Bob McSmith, which also explores the gentrification of Manhattan and what it means for artists.

‘My Acerbic Aerobics Class with O.J. Simpson’ by Robert Kerbeck – An account of being an extra in O.J. Simpson’s workout video which was filmed one week before the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

‘Secret Life of a Fashion Week Peon’ by Lacy Warner – A look inside a buyer’s showroom, where the real business of New York fashion week is done.

‘A Super Strange True Love Story: My Disappearing Fiancé’ by AnnaLisa Merelli – A first-person account of love gone wrong.

and

‘A Second Super Strange Love Story: I was the other woman’ by Riol Dankó – The follow-up to the above, where love goes horribly terribly wrong.

The best place to start on Narratively are the collections which group together different stories with similar themes, but be warned, once you start browsing you may lose an hour or so!

Trumbo

Donald Trumbo is a screenwriter whose most well known novel I reviewed on the blog a few weeks ago, and who is now synonymous with the Hollywood Ten; movie industry professionals blacklisted for refusing to answer questions in Congress related to their support of communism.

It’s a shame that the blacklist is what he’s most known for as it overshadows a huge talent, as evidenced by his prolific output including screenplays, essays, novels and non-fiction pieces. When blacklisted he wrote Roman Holiday and submitted it under a friend’s name and when the screenplay won the Academy Award, Trumbo watched the ceremony with his family at home, unable to take credit for his work. The same thing happened with his screenplay for The Brave One and it was only when he was publicly credited for his scripts for Spartacus and Exodus, released in the same year, that the blacklist crumbled.

Trumbo was a deeply moral and honourable man, which at times made him a nightmare for his family to live with. He questioned and challenged friends and enemies, didn’t shy away from conflict, and lived by his own code no matter what the cost. He was prepared to sacrifice everything for his beliefs, including an eleven-month prison sentence for contempt of Congress, and he expected his family to support him without question.

In a way, it seems ridiculous that a group of artists could have been witch-hunted, unable to make a living in a country where the right to free speech has been enshrined in the constitution since 1791. But take a minute and imagine Donald Trump as President of the United States and perhaps it doesn’t seem quite so implausible.

There are many things to admire about Trumbo: the period perfect costume and set design, the cinematography, and the performances above all. Diane Lane who plays Trumbo’s wife Cleo is always a pleasure to watch, and Helen Mirren is brilliant as Hedda Hopper, a racist bigoted gossip columnist, much more powerful than the TMZs and Enquirers of today as she had exclusive access to Hollywood’s elite. Bryan Cranston is magnificent as Trumbo, making him admirable, sympathetic and infuriating all at the same time. Having now seen all the performances in the category for Best Actor at the Academy Awards, Cranston would have been my pick for his performance.

 

West of Sunset – Stewart O’Nan

In 1937 F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s days as a successful novelist synonymous with the glamour of the roaring 20s were lost to the past. He was broke and in poor health, his wife Zelda was in a psychiatric institution, and his daughter, Scottie, was in a very expensive boarding school. When he was offered a lucrative contract by MGM studios, he decamped to Hollywood along with many of his New York contemporaries including Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, forming a commune in the famous Garden of Allah Hotel.

West of Sunset is Stewart O’Nan‘s imagining of this period in Fitzgerald’s life, and it’s well researched and a compelling read, recounting his desperation, loneliness and financial stress, and his constant struggle with alcohol; good days when he would abstain and instead drink numerous Cokes, and the inevitability of a bender, starting with a double gin and tonic and ending with a blackout.

It also depicts his relationship with Sheilah Graham, who was as reserved and controlled as Zelda was hedonistic and abandoned. Sheilah was much younger than Fitzgerald, an ambitious independent gossip-columnist who entered into a relationship with him despite the fact that he was still married to Zelda. No matter Fitzgerald’s attraction to Sheilah, he had an inescapable bond with Zelda. In a letter to a friend dated in 1920 he said that he ‘fell in love with her courage, her sincerity and her flaming self-respect…Zelda’s the only God I have left now’.

Fitzgerald died at age forty-four from a heart condition, presumably exacerbated by his lifelong love of partying and his struggle with alcohol. His observation that ‘There are no second acts in American lives’ was eerily prescient. When he died many of his books were out of print and there were no signs that he would become one of the most influential American authors of the 20th century.

A novel written from Fitzgerald’s point of view will of course draw comparisons with his own prose, and as he was a rare talent this is where the risk is for the author. O’Nan’s writing is lyrical and emotionally complex as befits the subject. I wished that I had read something of O’Nan’s before this, so that I would have a better understanding of his work and could place West of Sunset in a proper context, but it’s a great introduction to O’Nan and I’m interest to read more.

Here’s an interview with the author which is illuminating and interesting, and which thankfully doesn’t give too much away so you can watch it without spoiling your enjoyment of West of Sunset.