Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Physical Writing Process: Dalton Trumbo - Writing in the Bathtub & the Duality of Screenwriter-Novelist

Dalton Trumbo liked to write while he was in the bathtub. I wouldn’t say that he wrote while he was taking a bath because it was less about the bath and more about the idea that being there in the water was a comfortable place for him to sit and write all night. And at first I was thinking, maybe that’s not so odd—but the water mixing in with his papers and ink—and apparently he would have his typewriter in there with him sometimes too. It just all seems like it wouldn’t mix well! I would be paranoid of getting water on any of these things. But apparently it worked for him, and it’s considered a very iconic part of his writing process, as verified by this photograph of the statue depicting him in his hometown of Grand Junction, Colorado.

These first two photos are courtesy Uncover Colorado.

The description in Uncover Colorado is very amusing:
"It is a bronze antique bathtub with a naked 62-year old man lounging with coffee at the ready and cigarette in hand while working on a script. The eccentric Trumbo was known to do his best work writing in the bathtub."

You’ll notice in these photos, he keeps scissors and tape at hand. That’s because the other part of his physical writing process was cutting up pages and taping them together as he revised. Once he figured out the revision, he’d tape the cut out pieces all together on one page so he knew that was the new, final version of the page to be typed up.

The trailer for the 2015 movie Trumbo

Trumbo is best known as the man who broke the Hollywood blacklist. When he was called up before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he stood up for his belief in the first amendment and was uncooperative, which led to him being sent to jail for a year on the charge of contempt of Congress along with the rest of the Hollywood Ten. There is some debate over the precise nature of Trumbo’s communism, but the fact is that the Hollywood Ten believed the first amendment should protect them from having to answer to congress about their political beliefs, and they hoped to bring the case before the Supreme Court (it didn’t work out for them because two liberal justices died, so they were stuck going to jail). During the time of the blacklist, when any suspected communists couldn’t work in Hollywood, Trumbo continued to write scripts by having writer-friends allow him to use their names as fronts, and sometimes using pseudonyms—the pseudonym Robert Rich famously being awarded an Oscar for The Brave One, which became part of Trumbo’s campaign to tear down the blacklist, leading to him being credited for his movies once more and eventually, the eradication of the whole blacklist.

Trumbo wasn’t only a writer of movies though, he was also a novelist and fiction writer. I had never heard of Trumbo before, but my mom mentioned to me that she saw the 2015 movie about him and thought I would like it, especially because it was about a writer. I didn’t see it at the time, but I remembered that conversation later when I was with my wife at a dollar store. I always look at the book aisle while she’s shopping, even though for years I never bought a book there. However, on this occasion, a book cover depicting Bryan Cranston in front of a typewriter drew my attention, and I realized this was the nonfiction book that the movie was based on, so I got it for a dollar, not knowing if I’d even read it. But I picked it up recently and became fascinated by the whole thing.

There was a duality to Trumbo’s identity as a writer. On the one hand, he had his fiction, which he sometimes considered “real” writing and at times thought would be the better path to take—his true art form. Opposed to this was his writing of film scripts, which was associated with money and not being true art. It is clear that Bruce Cook—who wrote the biography and held extensive interviews with Trumbo and his friends, family, and associates—definitely agrees with this assessment and writes with lament about Trumbo’s unfinished novels.

During the year he spent in prison, Trumbo began a novel that he intended as the first in a cycle of historical novels. Bruce Cook writes of Trumbo’s optimism on the first novel, “And with these feelings came again the recurrent yearning to be a novelist, what he still thought of as a real writer.” Trumbo wrote 150 pages of the novel, and in a letter to his wife he wrote, “More and more I realize that when I emerge from this place I must at last make the choice of whether I want to live at the rate of $25,000 a year as we always have, or whether I want truly to become a writer. I think it would be better for all of us if the latter course were taken, although it would entail certain sacrifices.” Trumbo never finished that novel.

Movie industry executive Arthur Krim said: “Dalton is able to write anything. He has great facility. People might criticize him even for that, but I find it very good. There is only one other writer I have known in my long experience who had a similar facility, and this was, of course, Ben Hecht. I did seven scripts with him. But with both of them, too, I have the feeling that if pictures had not used the talent of these people, then they would have become greater writers. They got used to a higher life style, and they were spoiled for higher ambitions as writers. In pictures, you know, a writer can never be as important as he is in writing novels and plays, and so on. I’m thinking of them in this, what they could have done. On the other hand, we film people should be grateful that such talents will write for us.”

Albert Maltz, who was also a playwright, fiction writer and screenwriter who was jailed alongside Trumbo as part of the Hollywood Ten said: “I mentioned [Trumbo’s] Pacific novel already, of course. It was quite interesting, as I recall. I read one or two chapters. I don’t remember its content, but I made some suggestions. But that whole story points to an aspect of Trumbo’s character that I find really disturbing. I remember we were in his study talking about this Pacific novel of his. It was around 1946, and it was in that house on Beverly Drive. He had an enormous board up on a stand, white cardboard, and he explained to me that this Pacific novel was just one of a whole cycle he intended to write. He had a genealogical tree covering them worked out on this chart, showing where each one fitted in and what period and action it covered and all. It was a very ambitious project. But of course he never wrote them. Never wrote any of them… He had had a piece published in the Nation, and it was very good, very incisive, acidly witty. I said to him, ‘Dalton, why don’t you so arrange your life that you write more pieces like this?’ He shrugged and said nothing more about it. There is no question that Trumbo had talent for much greater literary work than the film work that he produced. The reason he never did what he could have done was this obsession of his with making money and living in a grand manner… It kept him writing, and writing, and writing, though. Why do writers write, after all? I know all about Balzac’s desire for money, Stendhal’s wish to woo women, and whatever it was that drove Victor Hugo. Flaubert didn’t produce what Hugo did, but what he did write was infinitely more important. So it may be foolish for me to say this about Trumbo, perhaps. He is what he is. He must have some reason for doing what he did, for using his talent the way he did. Though it’s a mystery to me.”

When Bruce Cook reflects on Trumbo’s life, he writes: “Trumbo was a complex man, one whose impulses and attitudes were frequently, perhaps constantly, in conflict. He had a novel under way for years, begun in 1960, set aside, rewritten but never abandoned… Many people have remarked that Trumbo should have written more novels; none, I’m sure, wished it more profoundly than he did. Not that he was ashamed of the screenwriting he had done. He loved films, loved working in the medium, and was surprisingly good at it. Yet in the end, perhaps particularly in the end, as he took stock of what he had done, Trumbo may well have wished that he had a solid pile of books that he could claim as indisputably his. Film is flimsy stuff, essentially of the moment; that is its glory and his shame. He joked about this, always a sign with him that it was something he took seriously.”

There’s a trope about artists needing to make sacrifices for their art, but it seems to be at play in this duality with Trumbo as a writer. It is understandable that people wish Trumbo had focused more on his fiction, since the few novels he did write early in his career received critical acclaim. Trumbo’s most famous novel is the antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun, which won a National Book Award. Much, much later in his life, in response to the Vietnam War, Trumbo decided to make the novel into a movie, the only film he directed. Even though it won awards at the Cannes Film Festival, it was not particularly successful. Wikipedia offers the sardonic note that “the film became far better known when it was incorporated in the video of Metallica's song 'One'” I do enjoy how many Metallica songs are based on literature.

Metallica's music video for "One" uses clips from Trumbo's film version of Johnny Got His Gun.

See also:
The American Writers Museum

Joseph Patrick Pascale - How to Get a Promotion When Your Boss Is Trying to Kill You (Accurate Accounts of Office Work: Book 1), a comic literary novel coming from Waldorf Publishing in July 2018.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Brier Rose Books in Teaneck, NJ - My Personal Favorite Bookstore

This blog makes it clear that I'm really into bookstores, and I've been to bookstores throughout North America and even parts of Europe. So I thought I'd share with you my personal favorite bookstore, Brier Rose Books in Teaneck, NJ. Now, perhaps I'm a bit biased because I used to live within walking distance of this store and I could go all the time, but I am still convinced that if you have the chance, you will have a unique and wonderful experience at a bookstore with a great selection.
The outside is quaint. With no huge sign on the building itself, you could almost miss it. 

Walking in feels the way I imagine it would be to walk into a magical bookshop, if such a thing were real. 
As soon as you enter, you are immediately surrounded by books on bookshelves. Whatever direction you go in, you'll be in a corridor of books, and at every end, all you can see is more books.
All of this makes it feel like you're not in a store at all. You've just stumbled into a maze of books. There's no one around--employees or customers. There's no music playing. There are no signs or obvious prices. It's just you and the books.
And I know this involves personal taste, but my wife and I always love the selection available. The fiction, the philosophy, the history, the science fiction and fantasy--there are so many compelling titles.
Way in the back corner of the store, there is a section of books for a dollar. It's all fiction, separated by general fiction, mystery, science fiction, and fantasy. And even in this section, we're always impressed by the books that are available. My wife always gets a big stack of sci-fi and fantasy books for $1 each, and I've picked up titles like Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut and Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse from this dollar section. 

By now, you've probably been in the store a long time, running your finger over the spines of books, perusing titles, reading a few pages, and maybe you've even collected a few books under your arm. You started out in the front of the store, but now you've been to the back corners and corridors in-between and you still haven't seen another soul. If it were the weekend, you'd probably have seen a few customers in obscure aisles here or there, but it's desolate. 

The shelves are set up like a maze, and you need to find that path that winds into the very center of the store. That's where the owner and sole employee, Howard Rose, has his sales desk set up. This centerpoint also contains some couches, antique artifacts, and the glass cases containing the rarest valuable books in the store (Although it's likely to see him on his laptop, selling books online, which is actually where the most expensive books are. He once told me that he wouldn't be able to keep the store open if he didn't have the money coming in from online sales. I just checked the Brier Rose Books AbeBooks profile, and right now there's a listing for a rare Jack London book signed by Jack London and his poet wife). Mr. Rose is happy to assist with finding something once you know he's embedded in there (and sometimes while you're wandering the corridors of books, you'll hear his disembodied voice ask you if you need any help). He always wants to have a conversation about what books you're reading, and whatever other topics may arise. He tells interesting stories of going out to review libraries for sale that he sometimes buys for the store. He says he's got tons of books in storage, and when people buy the popular ones from the dollar section, he has to go fish out more of them to put on the shelves.    

Last time we were there, he was upset that after all the ordeals of someone driving a car into his store, causing tons of damage that required construction to repair, Google mistakenly had his store listed as permanently closed. Rest assured, the store is open and looking better than ever, so if you want to experience the charm of Brier Rose Books stop by 450 Cedar Lane, Teaneck, NJ 07666.

You're reading this, so it's time to admit it You’ve been one – a bookstore hobo. Lingering too long among shelves of books. Sitting between the aisles reading a book you know you don’t have the money to buy, and thinking to yourself, “Oh, if I could only stay here forever.” So why don't you read my novella The Bookstore Hobos? Published in the Eunoia Review, The Bookstore Hobos is the story of Zaid, who tries to live in a bookstore when he finds himself unemployed. His adventures will take him to New York City, where he must attempt to apply what he's read to the real world.

Joseph Patrick Pascale - How to Get a Promotion When Your Boss Is Trying to Kill You (Accurate Accounts of Office Work: Book 1), a comic literary novel coming from Waldorf Publishing in July 2018.

Other entries in this series:

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Comic Moments in Literary Fiction #1: There Are No Cups in Kafka’s Amerika

"Sword? One supposes a mistake, since Kafka never saw the monument. Yet it grows increasingly clear that Karl has landed in a nightmarish new world where everything is slightly off-kilter, skewed and disorienting. A bridge over the Hudson connects New York to Boston." (Quote WP | Image-Vanished Empires)

There’s plenty of reasons to laugh, so this series will explore the hilarious, laugh-out-loud moments found in serious, literary fiction. Even if you’re someone like Franz Kafka, exploring existential dread and the absurdity of everything, you might as well laugh along the way. For instance, it’s widely reported that when Kafka gave a reading of the first chapter of The Trial — in which Joseph K. awakens to some detectives in his room, eating his breakfast, placing him under arrest for an unnamed crime (they don’t have the authority to tell him what he’s accused of), and telling K. that he can go about his day, although the court will keep an eye on him — Kafka could barely get through the reading because he was laughing so hard. David Foster Wallace wrote a great essay on Kafka’s humor and why Americans often don’t get catch the jokes, if you’d like to delve into that topic.

But for now, it’s my way of introducing a new series I’d like to try on this blog, in which I share moments I found particularly hilarious from works of literary fiction. We're using comic in the contemporary usage of "funny," not the tragedy/comedy plot classifications (we might be laughing at some tragedies in this series!) To start with one from Kafka, I’d like to share a scene from his first novel, often called Amerika, although The Missing Person is a more accurate title and translation. Like all three of his novels, it’s unfinished. It’s the story of Karl, a hapless young man whose parents ship him off to his rich uncle in the United States after he’s sexually assaulted by a maid. Kafka never actually visited America, and this isn’t supposed to be an accurate representation, but his own Kafkan version of the United States. For instance, as Karl arrives in New York, he “saw the Statue of Liberty, which he had been observing for some time, as if in a sudden burst of sunlight. The arm with the sword now reached aloft, and about her figure blew the free winds.” 

Karl has all sorts of bizarre adventures, but whenever I think about the novel, I remember this little moment and chuckle to myself. Karl has just spent the night at an inn with a couple of questionable characters, and now it’s the next morning:

“At last an innocent little boy came along and had to stretch up tall in order to hand the Frenchman the coffeepot. Unfortunately, there seemed to be only one coffeepot available, and it was impossible to get the boy to understand that they would like some glasses too. So only one person at a time could drink while the others stood beside him, each awaiting his turn. Although Karl had no desire to drink, he did not wish to hurt the feelings of the other two, and so, when his turn came, he simply stood motionless, holding the coffeepot to his lips.

By way of farewell, the Irishman threw the coffeepot onto the stone tiles; they left the building unobserved and left out into the thick yellowish morning fog” (Kafka translated by Mark Harman). 

It’s a small, inconsequential moment, but when I think of those guys standing there, waiting for their turn to drink out of the spout of the coffeepot—and Karl not wanting to, but drinking to be polite—I just burst out into laughter. 

And even though it's a silly detail, we can also read classic Kafka themes in the scene. We see that communication is impossible. This runs throughout Kafka, just think of the "Message to the Emperor" that can never be delivered or the law meant only for you that you can never find out (in "Before the Law"/The Trial). Here, we see it even affects something as mundane as trying to drink a cup of coffee. We also see people doing things they don’t want to do out of some perceived expectation, the kind of behavior taken to the extreme in "The Judgement." There’s so much packed into one little, hilarious scene. I'll have to fight the urge to recreate the moment next time I have guests over for coffee! 

For the next entry in this series, we'll look at some Witold Gombrowicz!

Joseph Patrick Pascale - How to Get a Promotion When Your Boss Is Trying to Kill You (Accurate Accounts of Office Work: Book 1), a comic literary novel coming from Waldorf Publishing in July 2018

See also:

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Jack Kerouac's Original Manuscript Scroll of On the Road, American Writers Museum-Literary Tour of Chicago Pt. 2

I first read On the Road by Jack Kerouac in 2008. Then I started to get even more into Kerouac's writing, reading many of his other novels starting in 2009. But at that time, I learned I had just missed the chance to see with my own two eyes the actual, original, legendary, scroll manuscript of On the Road. Starting in 2007 and ending in early 2008, the scroll went on a road trip of its own, being displayed in some museums and libraries around the United States, including New York City (which would have been easy for me to have seen!)
So these past nine years, that thought's crept up from the back of my mind--that I just missed my chance to actually see Kerouac's scroll, and maybe the chance wouldn't arise again. See, it's not like the scroll belongs to a museum or library; it's the private property of a rich guy. 
Like many famous writers, there is a whole controversy surrounding Kerouac's estate after his death. There's even a forged will. In his youth, Kerouac was friends with Sebastian Sampas, who tragically died young during World War II. Toward the very end of his life, Kerouac married Sampas' sister Stella. That's how his estate ended up belonging to the Sampas family. John Sampas was managing the estate until this past May when he died at the age of 84. Sampas' management of the estate was controversial. While he clearly did many good things such as donating a huge collection of Kerouac's papers to the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library or getting previously unseen Kerouac works into print like the original scroll version's text of On the Road, along with many other previously unseen novels and writings, he was criticized on many other accounts such as selling off Kerouac effects to Johnny Depp
Scholars decried Sampas' plan to auction off the scroll, and it was only good luck that Jim Irsay, who won the auction and bought the scroll for 2.43 million dollars, was a person who cared about the scroll's importance, had it restored, and has sometimes made it available to the public.  Unfortunately, the status of other manuscripts, such as the scroll of The Dharma Bums, is unknown. 
One appropriately rainy night in early May, I was reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, and I popped over to Google to read a bit more about Jackson's biography. So in my Googling, I end up on this website:, a list of suggested books by female authors posted by the blog of the American Writers Museum. What led me to the page was, "If you love The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, read The Sundial by Shirley Jackson" (and relevant to this post, they recommend to read Joan Didion if you like Kerouac. I have, but the two writers are very different). After glancing at that, I realized what page I was on and started wondering what the heck the "American Writers Museum" was. This was shortly before the museum opened, and I started reading the description and thought it sounded cool. Then I saw their first exhibitions and knew I had to travel there.

The name of the exhibit at the American Writers Museum is "A Beat Journey: Jack Kerouac's On the Road." 

The exhibit focused on telling the story of Kerouac's life and the writing on On the Road by way of the cities he lived in and traveled through.
I had never before seen this photograph of Kerouac flipping through all of his "secret scribbled notebooks," and I thought it was really nice they included this, as it helps break down the myth (that Kerouac himself helped create) that On the Road was rushed out in three weeks. In reality, it was drafted in notebooks for years on the road itself, compiled and written into the legendary scroll (in three weeks), and almost immediately Kerouac began to revise it into another draft on regular sheets of paper (to be more appealing to publishers who recoiled at the unorthodox scroll). 
Of course, having the scroll itself there shatters this myth as well. It's impossible not to notice that the manuscript is covered in Kerouac's pencil notes. He's crossed out many sentences and added in others.
One of the first things I noticed was a very well-known change; all of the "mothers" were transformed to "aunts" to aid in obfuscating the true nonfiction nature of the narrative, and thus protecting against potential lawsuits:
I also learned how difficult Jack Kerouac's handwriting is to read, so it's fortunate he was such a good typist!
It was fortuitous that I was traveling with Suany, as she is very perceptive and noticed many things I didn't. For instance, the famous opening of the scroll:
In all the times I've viewed photos of the famous opening of the scroll, including on the back copy of the book, I never noticed that it starts with a typo.
"I first met met Neal not long after my father died..."
Suany immediately noticed that error, and said it was nice for aspiring writers to see that the legendary draft of a classic American novel begins with a typo because everyone makes mistakes and you can't let that hold you back.
It was a nice touch that the back wall was adorned with a recreation of the hand-drawn map Kerouac drew in his notebook to sketch out his first hitch-hiking trip in On the Road.   
Many recollections of the scroll describe its ghostly, translucent quality. Kerouac may have typed later scrolls on teletype paper, but his first scroll, On the Road, was typed on Japanese tracing paper. Kerouac met his then-wife Joan Haverty after her boyfriend, Bill Cannastra died. He was a wild figure in the Beat Generation, and he died in a drunken goof where he climbed out of a moving subway car. Kerouac briefly lived in Cannastra's old apartment, which was where he got the Japanese tracing paper that he would tape together and turn into the scroll for On the Road
Viewing the scroll stretched out on stark white and well lit, you can't tell it's translucent. I only realized this quality as I peered at all the rest of it that hadn't been unfurled. You can see the backward print through the other side as clearly as you can see the front of it.

Another point of interest Suany observed about the scroll is that you could tell Kerouac's typewriter was broken. The margin on the left side would type at an uneven angle, so Kerouac would have to readjust every so often before the words got cut off. 
It'd be appropriate to end this with the torn up ending of the scroll where Kerouac notes, "Ate by Patchkee, a dog," but I couldn't see that part because it was rolled up.
Literary Explorations of Chicago
Obviously, we're always interested in experiencing the literary aspect of places, whether historical or contemporary. Usually, you're left to figuring this out on your own, but the American Writers Museum teamed up with an app called Vamonde to create what they called the "Chicago Literary Landmarks Hunt."
It's cool to see these literary sights of interest gathered here. The app lets users create and share their own journeys like this, so I might want to experiment with it more in the future.

You're reading this, so it's time to admit it: You’ve been one–a bookstore hobo. Lingering too long among shelves of books. Sitting between the aisles reading a book you know you don’t have the money to buy, and thinking to yourself, “Oh, if I could only stay here forever.” So why don't you read my novella The Bookstore Hobos? Published in the Eunoia Review, The Bookstore Hobos is the story of Zaid, who tries to live in a bookstore when he finds himself unemployed. His adventures will take him to New York City, where he must attempt to apply what he's read to the real world.

Joseph Patrick Pascale - How to Get a Promotion When Your Boss Is Trying to Kill You (Accurate Accounts of Office Work: Book 1), a comic literary novel coming from Waldorf Publishing in July 2018.

Other entries in this series:
See also: