Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Hasn't EVERYONE Heard of Scott Joplin and Maple Leaf Rag?

      Apparently not.
      Early on in my search for background material for my historical mystery, THE RAGTIME KID, I called a local video shop to reserve a copy of SCOTT JOPLIN, the 1977 movie, starring Billy Dee Williams and Art Carney. I told them I'd come in the next day to pick it up.
      First thing next morning, I walked into the store and up to the counter, and interrupted a clerk's daydream by telling him I wanted to pick up the movie they were holding for me. He showed his displeasure by muttering, "Whatsa name?"
      "Scott Joplin."
      If looks really could wither, I'd have been a cornstalk in October. The clerk looked me up, down, and sideways, then growled, "No, man! I don't mean your name. Whatsa name of the movie?"

      Shortly after THE RAGTIME KID came out, I went on tour through California. At a big-chain bookstore north of Los Angeles, the assistant events manager asked me to tell him "a little" about my book, so he could make an announcement over the store's P.A. system. "Well," I said, "It's a historical mystery, set in Sedalia, Missouri in 1899, when Scott Joplin signed the contract to publish Maple Leaf Rag, the tune that started the ragtime craze in America."
      I was going to say more, but the A.E.M. was ready to roll. "Great. I'll go make the announcement."
      A couple of minutes later, I heard, "Please stop by the table near the checkout counter, and meet Larry Karp, author of THE RAGTIME KID, which tells all about Scott Joplin and his knockout hit, the Make Believe Rag." 
      There's a punch line...two, in fact. In June, 1979, ragtime performer, composer, and historian David Jasen actually did publish a tune he called Make Believe Rag.
      And I could send you to youtube to hear Make Believe Rag, as transcribed for guitar by Tony Ackerman. That's what the caption says. But the tune Ackerman will play for you is Maple Leaf Rag.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Writing Characters From Real Life: Better To Know More Or Less?

      I just finished reading Nothing To Be Frightened Of, an intelligent, witty musing on death and dying, by the British novelist Julian Barnes. To quote noted children's author Peg Kehret, "He is funny and thought-provoking at the same time, and he does it all with such glorious language." The book is also a memoir, featuring stories about the author's family and friends which influenced and inspired his thanatopsis. And especially in the final pages, Barnes brings to the fore some thoughts about the ways and means of fiction writers.
      One of these thoughts is that in basing fictional characters upon real people, an author is wise to not know too much about the source. Barnes tells about a writer-friend who eavesdrops on conversations, but is careful to walk away from the speakers before he's been overexposed, and therefore limited in developing his characters.
      At first, I agreed with Barnes. I've been unable to use people I know as characters in my books, because as a seat-of-the-pants writer whose characters and plots develop during the course of the first draft and beyond, knowing all I do about my friends and acquaintances seriously restricts their fictional development. There are things these people simply will not say or do on a computer screen.  
      For this reason, when I set out to write my history-based ragtime mystery trilogy, I was leery of over-researching people like Scott Joplin; his publisher, John Stark; and Brun Campbell, the Ragtime Kid. But as I went along, I found the more I learned about a particular person in history, the more possibilities opened for characterization and plot. Without having a first-hand take on someone whose life I knew was over, all the information I gleaned from historical documents set itself up as a supporting structure, and the more extended that structure became, the more compatible fiction the character could build upon it as my story developed.
      One post-facto example: Nan Bostick, a ragtime pianist/historian/composer from the San Francisco Bay Area, is the great-niece of Charles N. Daniels, a prolific composer and publisher from the Ragtime Era and beyond. After Nan had read The Ragtime Kid, she told me she'd enjoyed the book, and had loved seeing Uncle Charlie as a character. But I wish you'd talked to me about him, she said. At one point, your Uncle Charlie said, 'Goddamn,' but my Uncle Charlie never, ever, used profanity or blasphemy. And during a heat wave in Sedalia, your Uncle Charlie loosened his tie and opened his shirt collar. My Uncle Charlie wouldn't have done that. He used to drive his wife crazy by going fishing in a properly-set up white shirt and tie, and his best wool suit. 
      Not that I thought my knowledge deficit had done my book mortal harm, but had I known about those quirks, my picture of Uncle Charlie might have been that much more arresting. And beyond that, Uncle Charlie's real-life peculiarities might have made the plot an even richer stew. I have to think, in historical fiction, more background information, used judiciously, is never going to be less.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Twisting History

       Discussion can get pretty heated when writers of historical fiction talk about whether it's all right to change historical facts in the interest of a story. I tend to go with the naysayers. Tell it like it was. Whenever I hear a sportscaster these days say, "Spahn and Sain, and two days of rain," I think no, wait. That's not how it went.
       I first became a baseball fan in 1948, listening to games on a big floor-model Philco radio in our dining room. That year, the Boston Braves won the National League pennant, though their starting-pitcher staff was supposed to be pretty thin. "Spahn, Bickford, Sain, then pray for rain," the broadcasters said.
       But Boston pitcher Vern Bickford, a rookie, managed an excellent 11-5 won-lost record and a fine 3.27 earned run average. Nor was he a one-year wonder. Before an arm injury ended his career, he pitched seven seasons of major league ball, made the National League All-Star team, threw a no-hitter against the powerful Brooklyn Dodgers, and one year led the National League in complete games and innings pitched. Somebody somewhere really must not have liked him; he lived to only 39, dying in 1960 of stomach cancer. 
       And when you come down to facts, the story told by the 1948 broadcasters was hardly spot-on to history. A fourth starting pitcher on that Braves team, Bill Voiselle, also an All-Star one year, pitched more than 200 innings, won 13 games (only two less than Spahn),and had an ERA of 3.63, lower than Spahn's.  
      Include Bickford and Voiselle, and you're telling an entirely different story, a truer one. "Spahn, Bickford, Voiselle, Sain. We don't care if we get no rain." I wouldn't mind seeing that quartet in Seattle Mariners uniforms this year.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Power of Privilege

       Doctors who use their honorific to secure good tables in restaurants irritate me. But I guess we all have our price. 
      There's a great neighborhood theater here in Seattle, Kenyon Hall, and one of the performers who appears there is Peter Mintun, a marvelous cafĂ© pianist from New York by way of San Francisco. Peter came to Seattle this past weekend, and a few days before his performance, Lou Magor, Kenyon Hall's major domo, brought him around to our house to see and hear our music boxes. Peter's major musical interest, early 20th-century American music, is well-represented on disc-playing music boxes, so we had a spirited audition of several instruments. And when it came time for Lou and Peter to leave, I hesitated only briefly before I asked Lou whether it might be possible to seat us up front for the concert. He said he thought he could oblige.
      As befits his customary venues, Peter's style is intimate, and for an hour and a half, we sat, Myra and I, six feet from the side of the piano, nothing separating us from the pianist as he played and sang from his repertoire of American show and movie music from the 'teens, 'twenties, and 'thirties - tunes I'd first heard in New York hotel lounges more than a half-century before, songs that had promised an enchanting, beguiling forever to a teenaged boy, nursing his grossly-overpriced glass of coke or ginger ale. At the end of Peter's concert, it took an effort to blink myself back to Seattle and 2010.
      While I was listening to the music, had I felt guilty for having sidestepped into those front-row seats? Not in the least. Could I summon up the slightest regret for my reprehensible behavior? I have to confess, I couldn't. O tempora! O mores!

Go to youtube, search Peter Mintun, and see and hear for yourself what I've been talking about. Be prepared for a long stay. Peter's put up a tune a day for the past 140 days.