Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ragtime Mojo

So yesterday I flew down to L.A. to give my talk on The Ragtime Kid
tomorrow night in San Marino. The flight arrived a half-hour early.
Since yesterday was my birthday, my sister Kate, one of Long Beach's
literary lionesses, was going to take me to dinner at The Sky Room, a
gorgeous thirties-ambience spot with 180-degree views of the Long Beach
harbor. I drove from LAX to Long Beach at 5 in the afternoon, straight
through, no traffic. At The Sky Room, the incomparable Marty served us
an out-of-this-world dinner, capped off by the fabulous chocolate
dessert and message - in chocolate! - you see in the photo above.

Today, I slept nice and late, then checked my email and found a message
that the galleys for A PERILOUS CONCEPTION, my next book, will be
waiting for me when I get home Sunday. How can I collect this mojo in a
bottle? Hope it holds out through (and yeah, why not, beyond) tomorrow
night in San Marino.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Ragtime Kid Comes To San Marino

S. Brun Campbell

Down in St. Louis, on Chestnut and Market Streets,
That was the home of that old two-four beat.
It was there Tom Turpin wrote "Harlem Rag,"
While over at Sedalia, Mo., Scott Joplin wrote "The Original Rags."
But when he wrote "The Maple Leaf Rag,"
He put the two-four beat right in the bag.
Louis Chauvin played piano on Chestnut Street
And was the best of them all on the two-four beat.
That beat spread to Memphis down to old Beale Street,
And then down to New Orleans, to Rampart, Franklin and Basin Streets.
When Buddy Bolden heard it he blew out a loud jazz call
That rocked Lulu White's "Mahogany Hall."
It put New Orleans jazz right on the ball,
And made it the music of the Mardi Gras.
Then up at Memphis Handy blew a fuse -
For in 1912 he wrote the "Memphis Blues."
That was good, so he wrote another, the "St. Louis Blues."
Now Zez Confrey, just to be a tease,
Set a new jazz pattern and wrote "Kitten on the Keys."
Then George Gershwin got into a musical stew
And sat right down and wrote "Rhapsody in Blue."
So from Bolden to Gershwin it's been a musical treat,
But it all goes back to the two-four beat.

Sanford Brunson Campbell, age 15, rode a freight train from his Oklahoma home to Sedalia, MO in 1899, to take ragtime piano lessons from Scott Joplin. The composer nicknamed his student "The Ragtime Kid," and he went on to have a most interesting and colorful ragtime life - so interesting and colorful, he served as a principal character in two of the stories in my historical-mystery trilogy.

One of those books, THE RAGTIME KID, is the focus of this year's One Book/One City Festival in San Marino, CA. I'll be down there next Thursday with a presentation, "The Ragtime Kid - Separating Fiction From Reality." Not an easy undertaking, since Brun could rarely resist the temptation to embellish a story, and he rarely told the same tale the same way. Emerson could have been thinking of Brun when he made his point about consistency, hobgoblins, and little minds. But that was a great part of what made The Kid such an interesting character, in both senses of the word.

The lines of THE TWO-FOUR BEAT don't scan awfully well, but all right. Brun gets his point across, and more charitably than he usually did. Brun hated jazz; for him, it all began and ended with ragtime, and most of the time he was far from shy about making that clear.

My talk will be at the Crowell Public Library, 1890 Huntington Drive, San Marino, CA 91108, April 28, 7pm. Please come by, if you're in the neighborhood. There'll be food for mind and body.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

You Gotta Have Heart

Our Seattle Mariners started their baseball season with two wins, then lost seven games in a row, and fell behind 7-0 in their next game. Fans and sportswriters agreed - might as well call off the season. This team is going nowhere, certainly not to the playoffs. We're looking at a summer of pain and frustration.

But I remember the best baseball season ever, 1951. My New York Giants lost eleven games in a row out of the gate, and started the year 2-12. Things looked so bad, they called up a young outfielder named Willie Mays. After 20 at-bats, Willie had one hit, a batting average of .050. On August 11, the Giants were thirteen games behind the hated Brooklyn Dodgers, and Chuck Dressen, the Dodgers' manager told reporters, "The Giants is dead."

Not quite. The Jints ran off a sixteen-game win streak, caught the Dodgers during the last weekend of the regular season, then won the pennant in a playoff, when Bobby Thomson hit the most famous home run in the history of the game. That team had heart. Miles and miles and miles of heart.

What's that got to do with writing? Writers gotta have heart, too. So many ink-slingers become instant successes only following years of frustration, having doggedly refused to give up even when everything and everyone seemed to be telling them that would be the reasonable move.

After some thirty years of trying and failing to write a novel and get it published, I left my day job to go at book-writing full time. Three years of scribbling produced a novel and twenty-odd rejection slips. Then, a writer-friend volunteered to give my book a once-over. He told me my voice was great - for nonfiction - and suggested I rewrite the book "as if you're telling someone a story, for crying out loud." I listened to my batting coach, spent a half-year adjusting my stance, then hit it out of the park. The first publisher who saw the reworked book bought it, and it became THE MUSIC BOX MURDERS, my first published mystery novel. My eighth, A PERILOUS CONCEPTION, will come out this December. That's twelve years in the majors for me, and if I've never made an All-Star team, it's OK. I just love to play the game.

And oh yeah. The Mariners scored one run in the seventh inning, five in the eighth, and two more in the ninth to win that game. No, they probably won't make it to the postseason, but all right. I'll cheer them on through the summer anyway. They've got heart.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Sedalia, My New Home Town

Writers know they've done well when they can't walk away from a finished book. A good story leaves something of itself in its author's mind forever.

When I started work on THE RAGTIME KID, the first book in my historical-mystery trilogy, I could have dropped what I knew about life in a bustling 1899 Missouri town into a watch case, and it would have rattled around. So aside from educating myself on the history of ragtime music and its pioneers, I read everything I could get my hands on about social, political and historical aspects of Sedalia a hundred years ago. I studied Sanborn insurance maps for 1899 Sedalia; these gave specifics for every building in the city, every street, every alleyway. At that point, I could have written a decent nonfiction account of the amazing collaboration between Scott Joplin and John Stark, but a novel? No way. Something important was missing, and I knew that to get it, I needed to go to the place where it all happened.

I pulled into Sedalia for the first time on a Sunday morning in June, 2003, immediately after the annual Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival. It was 94 degrees, with humidity to match. This meteorology developed into the opening sentences of Chapter 4 in THE RAGTIME KID: "They say the devil once spent a week in Missouri in July, then went back and set up hell to specifications. Only ten in the morning, but the air was already a sopping blanket..." Ohio Street, the town's major thoroughfare, was deserted, the only sound that of church bells. As I followed the self-guided tour in a C of C brochure, I saw that many of the buildings had stood since 1899 or earlier. In my mind's eye, Ohio Street filled with men in three-piece suits, women wearing long dresses and big floppy hats, scampering children, peddlers, horse-drawn wagons. I walked to Liberty Park, sat on the grass, and could feel myself among picnickers and strollers from a century before, listening to the band on the bandstand.

My story began to come to life. But I knew I needed more, so I planned to come back the next June - but a little earlier, in time for the Joplin Festival.

Which I did. I'm not a musician, and had been wondering how to portray Brun Campbell's piano lessons with his hero, Joplin. My reading had given me a pretty good sense of what Joplin generally would have expected from a student, but as to specific instructions, I was at Square One. So I sat in on some master classes, where prominent ragtime pianists showed their young counterparts how to play the music. I strolled through town, among crowds of people, many of them dressed in period apparel, and it became easier and easier to imagine myself on those streets 104 years earlier. I spent hours at the beautiful Carnegie Library, looking through microfilmed copies of the Sedalia newspapers from the summer of 1899 - what were people concerned about, what were they saying, how did they speak? I pawed through a profusion of photos and documents from the local ragtime era. The librarians opened locked cabinets to allow me to look through histories of Sedalia and Pettis County, written and independently-published through the years by local residents.

My greatest stroke of luck came while I was at the microfilm machine. The woman at the machine next to mine introduced herself as Betty Singer, said she was researching a book about local rural cemeteries, and allowed that my project sounded interesting. She loved to do research, she told me, and if she could help me with material I found I needed once I got home, she'd be only too glad to do so. That she did, over the next two years, providing me with information I only realized I required as the book developed. Without Betty's help, important characters for my story, such as Dr. Walter Overstreet and P. D. Hastain would never have developed.

All the while I wrote THE RAGTIME KID, I felt as though I was making a personal connection with Scott Joplin, John Stark, Brun Campbell, and many of the other real people who became characters in my book. But I also came to feel connected to Sedalia. Images still drift into my mind: the gorgeous century-old mansions along Broadway; lovely Liberty Park with its lake and bandstand; the central downtown district, fighting to survive the onslaught of the ubiquitous highway shopping malls; fields of tall grasses blowing in the warm summer wind north of Lincolnville, the original Black residential quarter of town. Now, I find myself counting time to the first week in June, when Sedalia will host the next Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival, and I'll hop a flight to Kansas City, then drive east on Route 50, through Lone Jack and Knob Noster, for my annual homecoming.