Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bad News, Good News

      The bad news is that it's past 10 o'clock on a Wednesday night, and I just realized I haven't written my weekly blog.
      The good news is that it happened because I got so wrapped up in my book-in-progress, I forgot about everything else.  
      For the better part of a year, now, Colin Sanford, a brilliant doctor, determined to produce the world's first in-vitro-fertilization baby, and Police Detective Bernie Baumgartner (Bernie the Bulldog), determined to sort out why people in Sanford's operation have ended up dead or missing, have been going back and forth on my computer in a cerebral life-and-death chess game. But this morning, all of a sudden, one of them spoke just the right words, and there they were, in Sanford's office, slugging away at each other like a couple of kids in a street fight. And when the fight was over, it all came to me. I saw who really were the good guys, and who were the bad, and how it was going to sort out. My working title for the book has been "Unfinished Business." Today, I saw why. I spent the rest of the day joyously scribbling notes that would take me to The End.
      And just now realized I hadn't written my blog. Well, there it is.  

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Alan Chandler, C'est Moi?

      People ask me all the time whether one or another character in one of my books is "you." More disconcerting, sometimes they don't ask; they insist a particular character is me. I usually reply to the effect that I never use real people, myself included, as models for fictional characters, that knowledge of a real person's M. O. would limit his or her freedoms of expression and action as a character in a work of fiction.
      But I may have to think this through. My sister told me that Alan Chandler, the 17-year-old ragtime pianist in THE RAGTIME FOOL, is "me." I told her Alan is nothing like I was at his age. I couldn't play a note of music. I would never have run off to Missouri to meet an old man from California, to give him an important book I'd bought for a large sum of money from an old woman in Harlem. I'd never have dared to speak to my parents the way Alan spoke to his. And I was amused at Alan's naivete about racial relations in Missouri in 1951. He was unaware that segregation existed outside the deep South. Just clueless.
      But a little while ago, Tim Reed, a friend and fellow music box collector, sent me a link, , he thought might interest me, given that I grew up in New Jersey. The video was from NJN, New Jersey Public Television and Radio, and presented the history of Asbury Park, the resort where my family and I spent two weeks every summer throughout the 1950s.
      Did I know that the town was founded by a pious Methodist, who wanted to set up a proper resort for proper, well-to-do Christians? Yeah, kind of.
      Did I know this target population had "help," who needed to live somewhere, so a Black section of the city was established literally on the other side of the railroad tracks? No.
      Did I know that this Black ghetto was a hotbed of popular music, a major venue for the most popular ragtime, blues, and jazz musicians of the day? Nope.
      Did I know that even into the 1960s, Asbury Park remained segregated, that Blacks had their own separate (but not equal) beach; the Black beach was adjacent to the sewer outlet? No.  
      Did I ever notice that I never saw a Black face on the Asbury Park City Beach during the 1950s? No.  
      Did that ever strike me as odd? No.

      All right, then. Isn't it so that people in our dreams are not "somebody else?" Aren't they completely our own creations, put up by our subconscious minds to populate the stories we call dreams?
     - Sounds reasonable.
      Wouldn't I have loved to talk to my parents the way Alan talked to his?  
      - Damn right I would've. 
      Wouldn't I have loved to hop a train to Missouri with the key to a special ragtime event in my book bag?  
      - Well, yeah. I guess I really would've.
      What would I have given to be able to play piano like Alan?
      - Chalk one up for the sister.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

When Characters Act Out Of Character

       When a character in a story I'm reading says or does something inconsistent with his or her established beliefs or behavior, I place a bookmark, then watch for the why of that odd statement or action. If it never shows up, I put a big black mark next to the author's name.
       In the course of my own work, when a character speaks or acts inconsistently, I also put in a bookmark, to remind myself I need to sort out the oddity. Sometimes, it turns out the character is trying to fool another character. Sometimes, the character's trying to fool him/herself. Sometimes, especially in early drafts, I think I've heard one character speak, when in fact the words came from someone else. Sometimes, I've misunderstood the character. All these possibilities are fine, so long as the variant information is resolved. If a raging white racial bigot takes a little black boy into a confectionary, buys him an ice-cream cone, then sends him on his way with an avuncular pat on the back, it's my job to dig out the reason, and make sure the reader is similarly enlightened before The End.
      This necessity also translates out to real-life situations. Taking into account that people do not act out of character without reason may prevent painful misunderstandings.  
       Many years ago, my friend, Graham Webb, a dealer in antique music boxes in England, called to offer me a very impressive Swiss cylinder box. I told Graham I was very much interested, but would need to sell some of my other music boxes to pay for this one. There was a major swap meet coming up in a week: could he put the box on hold for me until that time? He said he'd be happy to.
      The swap meet was successful, and immediately afterward, I called Graham, identified myself, and told him I would in fact like to buy the Nicole Grand Format Overture Box. To my surprise and dismay, he said, in a very cold tone, "I'm sorry. That box is sold."
      Understand a hard-core collector's reaction. I was just this far from giving Graham two earsful of anger and indignation when a voice in my mind reminded me how long I'd known him, and how out of character his comment was. There had to be a reason. So I took a deep breath, and said, "Graham, I thought you told me you'd be holding that box for me."  
      There was a moment of silence, then, "I'm sorry...who did you say this is?"
      "Larry," I said. "Larry Karp."
      That brought a burst of laughter. "Oh, Larry, hello. I thought you said 'Barry Clark.' These transcontinental phone lines, you know. Just terrible."
       From that time forward, I was always 'Barry" to Graham, and we never stopped chuckling over the Great Big Transcontinental Misunderstanding.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Scott Joplin Leads The Way In Any Language

A couple of weeks ago, pianist Karen Pate and I presented a program, Ragtime in Music and Words, at the King County Library in Federal Way, WA. Karen played selections from ragtime composed during the past century, and I talked about the history of ragtime, focusing primarily on Scott Joplin and his efforts to transform folk ragtime into a form of classical music, respected and honored as fine art. Joplin succeeded, but acknowledgement of his success only came years after the composer's death.

After the event, a woman in the audience came up to thank Karen and  me, and presented us each with a message in kanji on a small wooden block. She'd written them during the concert. The gift to Karen complimented her musical performance, while mine, the artist said, was  her own take on Scott Joplin's lifelong ambition to create a new American musical genre, and translated out to 'beautiful dream,' or 'beautiful vision.' Right on.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Wednesday Doubleheader - Yankees Suck, Mariners Rock & A Ragtime Urban Legend

      To follow up on last week's post, I got a nice phone call Saturday from Randy Adamack, the Seattle Mariners' Vice-President of Communications. Mr. Adamack told me that ever since the original brouhaha over the Yankees Suck T-shirts in 2002, the official club policy has been that fans may wear a 'Yankees Suck' T-shirt (or any T-shirt they'd like) to Safeco Field, and specifically, the alcohol enforcement officer should not have ordered me to remove my shirt and turn it inside out. As part of the apology, Mr. Adamack invited my wife and me to a game of our choice this month, on the Mariners, something not requested, but gratefully accepted. 
      There always have been and always will be people who set themselves up as guardians of public morality. They need to be opposed vigorously. I'm gratified that the Mariners have taken a clear stance against censorship.

      I keep coming across a word-for-word story about Scott Joplin, my latest encounter being at this site. The account holds that Scott Joplin was the "first music teacher" of Rollin Rodgers, a young white boy in a "small town" in Texas. Years later, Rodgers was offered the opportunity to sing at the Met, but insisted on bringing his old teacher to hear him. The Met refused to allow a black man in, so Rodgers went back to Texas and never did become a star opera singer. Joplin, so touched by Rodgers' sacrifice, decided to take up the composing he'd abandoned because of "money problems, health problems, and a messy divorce." So, Rodgers allegedly was in large part responsible for our having Joplin's ragtime to hear today.
      What really happened: in about 1880, in Texarkana, young Scott Joplin, recognized through the town as a prodigy, came to the attention of one Julius Weiss, a German immigrant employed as a tutor for the children of the wealthy Rodgers lumber family. One of the Rodgers children was Rollin, so he and Joplin were contemporaries. Weiss arranged to give young Joplin free lessons in piano, sight-reading, and harmony, and may also have tutored the boy in academic subjects (which might account for the fact that Joplin, as an adult, was so well-spoken, and moved comfortably in white society). And since Weiss' music lessons focused on European music, Joplin got a healthy exposure to that, and came to know classical and operatic music well.
      Joplin studied with Weiss until 1884, when Mr. Rodgers died, the family cut expenses, and Weiss had to leave town. Joplin, then 16, left Texarkana as well, and became an itinerant pianist in the midwest, finally settling in Sedalia MO in the mid-1890s, where he became a central figure in the city's music communities, and began to write the ragtime music that would make his reputation. He (and his publisher, John Stark) called his music "classic" or "classical" ragtime, since Joplin wanted to make over the rough, raucous folk ragtime of the day into a respected and respectable form of classical music.
      I can find no evidence of any operatic performances by Rollin Rodgers, only that he played the violin, and had a "lifelong interest in opera." Joplin's not-very-messy divorce was in 1903, before he ever went to New York, determined above all else to compose a ragtime opera. During his subsequent health and money problems, he never stopped composing; by all accounts, he was a tune-writing machine. 
      And just for the record, Weiss' appearance in my book, THE RAGTIME KID, is pure fiction. Once he left Texarkana, there is only sketchy information of his whereabouts and activities; he may have been in Houston for a while.

The most comprehensive reference on Julius Weiss is: Julius Weiss, Scott Joplin's First Piano Teacher, by Theodore Albrecht, College Music Symposium 19 (2), Fall 1979, pp. 89-105.