Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Movin' On

My office walls are covered with artwork and photographs which represent a number of my interests. There are music boxes and organ grinders, early twentieth-century sheet music, the wrapper from a giant chocolate bar, some beautiful Origami flowers made by the mother of a Japanese friend, and a photo of my son Casey and me at a ball game, wearing matching T-shirts with a big, blue PUTZ emblazoned across the front. (Mr. J.J. Putz once pitched for our Seattle Mariners). I've been a baseball fan since I was nine, so it stands to reason that some of my office wall decorations have been posters handed out by the Mariners over the past fifteen years.

But baseball ain't what it used to be. (I know, nothing is, but still). What I miss most about the baseball of sixty years ago is the loyalty and affection that grew between fans and the players who spent their entire career with one club. Joe DiMaggio wasn't called the Yankee Clipper for nothing. Jackie Robinson retired rather than accept a trade to his Dodgers' hated crosstown rival, the New York Giants. And if the Giants had ever traded Willie Mays, the fans would've demolished the Polo Grounds.

Most Seattle fans will never stop booing Alex Rodriguez for swearing fealty to the Mariners, then jumping ship to grab an unprecedented package of Texas simoleons. But Albert Pujols' defection to Los Angeles this past winter was worse. When he sailed southward, A-Rod was still a green kid, susceptible to the blandishments of a megalomaniacal team owner. But all it took for Pujols, a grown man in the prime of his career and an idol in St. Louis, to blow off his adoring multitudes of fans was a few pieces of Disneyland silver. His statue could've stood next to Stan Musial's forever. How many millions of dollars does anyone need?

 I have no particular attachment to the St. Louis Cardinals, but Pujols' flight to the coast was a spit in the face of every baseball fan everywhere. Last week, I cast a jaundiced eye at my walls, then pulled down the baseball posters, and put up the ragtime memorabilia I accumulated over the past several years, as I wrote my ragtime-based historical mysteries. Scott Joplin replaced Alex Rodriguez, a better trade than any the Mariners ever pulled off. Joe Lamb's "Nightingale Rag" replaced the Mariners' flamboyant proclamation, "You Gotta Love These Guys."

Well, no, I don't gotta. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Birds Of A Feather

In 1899, fifteen-year-old Sanford Brunson (Brun) Campbell ran away to Sedalia, MO, to take piano lessons from Scott Joplin. Before he left Sedalia, Joplin nicknamed him The Ragtime Kid.

For nearly ten years, Brun worked as an itinerant pianist throughout the midwest, Colorado, and California. When interest in ragtime faded, Brun took up the barber trade, first in Tulsa, then in Venice, CA. He played a major role in the ragtime revival of the 1940s, working tirelessly to promote ragtime, Scott Joplin, and, not incidentally, himself.

Last spring, I got an email from a Los Angeles antiques dealer who had cleaned out a house, and found three cartons of items that had belonged to Brun Campbell. Having never heard of Brun Campbell, the dealer googled his name, and up came Larry Karp's ragtime historical-mystery trilogy. A quick negotiation, and a few days later, three cartons arrived at my house. I opened them in jig time. My summer project lay before me.

One of the cartons was nearly filled with typed manuscripts. About half were titled When Ragtime Was Young; these were accounts of Brun's career as an ragtime pianist. The rest were short pieces, treating one or another aspect of the history of ragtime. Brun had hoped to publish this material.

 It didn't take me long to decide that the historical writings should remain unpublished. Most of the information is now common knowledge, but more important, Brun simply was not a historian. Why spend time chasing down a fact when an opinion would serve just as well, maybe better? In addition, Brun was, to put it tactfully, an embellisher. Probably his most egregious historical invention was a description of Scott Joplin's funeral. Brun alleged that the procession to the cemetery consisted of a long line of carriages, each bearing a placard with the name of one of Joplin's rags. But Joplin had died broke and forgotten, and was buried in an unmarked grave.

I spent six years in Brun's close company as I wrote my ragtime trilogy, and I think I got to know him pretty well. In my imagination, I pressed him on the point of Joplin's funeral procession. His answer? "Well, the way I told it, that's what Mr. Joplin deserved. That's how it should've been."

So, Brun's histories will stay in their acid-free protective sleeves. But the story of his musical career is another matter. The Kid didn't pick up much in school as regards grammar, spelling, and punctuation, but he was a master storyteller. Those pages held me enthralled - I could hear the old guy talking. Yes, he probably did toss in an exaggeration here and there, but the overall account rang true. He couldn't possibly have made up some of that stuff.

So, I guess for the next year or two, as I'm writing a followup mystery to A Perilous Conception, I'll be trying to work Brun's anecdotes into a coherent, publishable narrative. It's interesting that with all the capable writers of ragtime history throughout the world, Brun's works found their way to another storyteller. I think that would've amused The Kid. Maybe that's how it should've been.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Linger Awhile, Russell Hoban

Russell Hoban, an American who spent his most productive years as an expat in England, died this past December 13. A prolific and highly-imaginative writer of both adult and childrens' books, Hoban sprang to the forefront of literary fiction writers with his stunning 1980 post-apocalyptic novel, Riddley Walker. A reviewer in the Sunday Telegraph wrote of the author, "I've often thought of Russell Hoban as a sentimental Samuel Beckett for people who would rather Vladimir and Estragon just did something while waiting for Godot not to show up."

My favorite Hoban novel is Linger Awhile, a short work from 2007 which blends apparent reality with the most outrageous science fiction to consider the poignant mysteries, illogicalities, and contradictions of old age. Irving Goodman, an 83-year-old (Hoban's age at the time) widower becomes obsessed with Justine Trimble, a long-dead star of crummy western movies. He recruits his friend, the aptly-named Istvan Fallok, to resurrect the actress from a movie tape, but the pair of lascivious oldsters soon find out that to stay alive, Justine needs regular doses of human blood. Then, things get interesting, in a Chinese-curse sort of way.

Maybe my enthusiasm for this book reflects the possibility that an elderly male, especially if he happens to be a writer, might be particularly susceptible to the subject matter. But I prefer to think that what hooked me was Hoban's brilliance at cloaking the fantastic in prodigious verbal agility. Did I mention that Linger Awhile is written in first-person point of view - of no less than eleven characters? I was so dazzled by Hoban's way with words that I was even able to look past his premise that Justine Trimble's need for blood was grounded in a requirement for continued replacement of genetic material. Adult red blood cells, having no nuclei, don't contain chromosomes.

Hoban also ranks high on my list of authors who write lines I'd love to steal, if only I had the nerve. My favorite in Linger Awhile comes as Irv is about to engage in a bit of geriatric sex with his new friend, Grace Kowalski. Grace tries to encourage him: "Don't ever say you're not a player." "Well, I don't do the full orchestra," Irv replies, "but if you like chamber music, I'm your man."

In his later years, Hoban, a self-described writing addict, remarked that "when the tank is getting empty I think you drive a little faster." And he thought death might "be a good career move. People will say, 'Yes, Hoban, he seems an interesting writer, let's look at him again'."

Linger awhile, Russell.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Publishing Jitters, Writing Jitters

Different strokes...
Some writers get the jitters after they've finished a book. Galleys are done, review copies out. No going back. Too late to fix the horrible errors that are certainly there. Readers will hate it. Reviewers will shred the book and crucify the author.

My jitters come earlier in the process. As a writer incapable of using an outline for fiction, I begin my stories with a barely-defined character in a murky situation, turn the character loose, and start banging the keyboard. My first drafts are masterpieces of literary malfeasance, the poor characters stumbling this way and that, trying to find their way through the novelistic equivalent of a classic London pea-souper.

As I wrote my first few books, the end of a writing session found my characters and me equally exhausted. But I learned that if I'd just...keep...writing, the characters would gradually reveal and define themselves. Words I couldn't have imagined would be spoken; deeds I couldn't have envisioned would be done, and the book would spring to life. Like a biologist bringing a slide under a microscope into focus. By the time I write "The End" - well, I never actually do write "The End," but to make a point - I feel as though I've told the story I wanted to tell (which is always different from the story I had thought I'd wanted to tell), and that I've done it as well as I could. By the time the book comes out, I'm into the next story*, and any jitters I have are related to the new project.

 Sometimes I think about all the other roads my characters might've taken, but didn't. Just like real life. Alternative histories haunt us as we constantly make choices that send us off in particular directions, too bad about the myriad other possibilities that never will be.

To take it a step further, how many other possibilities were there at the moment my parents did what it took to put me into the world? I'm sure there could have been better Larry Karps, and I guess there could have been worse, but for better or worse, here I am. All I can do is keep stumbling forward, and hope that when I've finished the final draft, it will be the best story I could have told.

* There are exceptions to every rule. With A Perilous Conception out for two months now, I'm not yet into my next story. But that's a whole nother story. I hope to be generating my next set of jitters soon.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Ethics of In Vitro Fertilization

I've begun my bookstore and library talks on A Perilous Conception with remarks to the effect that in vitro fertilization used to be a hot topic, the subject of considerable debate between scientists and liberal ethicists on one side, and religious leaders and conservative ethicists on the other side. I've shown my audiences the cover of the June 13, 1969 issue of Life Magazine, which asked, "When new methods of human reproduction become available - Can traditional family life survive? Will marital infidelity increase? Will children and parents still love each other? Would you be willing to have a 'test-tube" baby?"

Now, more than thirty-three years after the birth of Louise Joy Brown, it's become clear that fertilization in a plastic dish, rather than in a fallopian tube, carries no excess risk for offspring, parents, or society. Today, in vitro fertilization is an accepted standard medical procedure.

But not everyone's convinced. Monday morning's newspapers carried Newt Gingrich's call "for a commission to study the ethical issues relating to in vitro fertilization clinics, where...large numbers of embryos are created."

So, back we go to Square One. Forty years ago, the ethics of in vitro fertilization were extensively discussed and argued, and the issues were resolved to the satisfaction of the great majority of the American public. But Gingrich's proposal has nothing to do with the question of whether IVF babies are at higher risk for physical or mental abnormalities, or whether the mothers might be damaged by the procedure, or whether there might be adverse societal fallout. The presidential candidate is trying to court voters who believe human-ness begins not at fetal viability, nor with a beating heart, nor with organ differentiation, nor at embryonic implantation, but at fertilization. To this bloc, he holds out the hope of exerting official control over the handling of the eight-cell embryos created during the IVF process.

So, hello again, Roe v Wade. Easy to see the coming end-run, another attempt to legislate the will of a minority of the population past a ruling by the United States Supreme Court.

But Gingrich's self-serving gesture to the far right has the ring of a cracked bell. I wonder what would be the political stances and religious convictions of the members of his commission. This candidate has complained loud and long about the intrusion of government into our everyday lives, but he seems to think it'd be just fine for the government to dictate his-size-fits-all reproductive choices. He might do well to consider the beliefs and feelings of the ten percent of American couples who find themselves infertile. Do the math, Newt. They also vote.