Sunday, March 29, 2015

Celebrating Letters ( the kind that were written on paper)

I used to be a very good writer of letters and I probably still would be if it weren’t so easy to succumb to the ease and immediacy of emails.

Sean Usher oversees a blog called Letters of Note. He took letters from the blog and produced a beautiful book called Letters of Note: Eclectic Correspondence Deserving of A Wider Audience. Since my home is already bursting with books, I own the Kindle version of this. It’s in no way beautiful but it’s still a terrific collection.

Haven’t you always wanted Queen Elizabeth II’s recipe for drop scones? You’ll find it in a letter to Dwight Eisenhower in which she remembers his visit to Balmoral Castle.

If you want to continue on the royal road there’s Mary, Queen of Scots’ letter to Henry III announcing her imminent execution (it happened 6 hours after she wrote the letter).

For the literary, there is the suicide note that Virginia Woolf leaves for her husband, Leonard. She can no longer read or write and is hearing voices again. She adds, “Everything has gone for me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could be happier than we have been.”

These letters are not all gloomy. Kurt Vonnegut writes about the firebombing of Dresden, but he survived it and went on to write Slaughterhouse-Five. Patrick Hitler, Adolf’s nephew, begs to be allowed to fight in the US military against his uncle. His letter was handed over to J. Edgar who did eventually agree that he could serve.

A 23 year old Eudora Welty begs The New Yorker for a job: “I read simply voraciously and can drum up an opinion afterwards… I can also draw like Mr. Thurber, in case he goes off the deep end. I have studied flower painting.”

My favorite letter (which went to many people) comes from Robert Pirosh who wants to become a screenwriter. He went on to get an Oscar for his screenplay of Battleground:

Dear Sir:

I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I l like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave “V” words like Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like crunchy brittle, crackly words, such as splinter, grapple, jostle, crusty.

I like sullen, crabbed scowling words, such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl. I like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land’s sake-words, such as tricksy, tucker, genteel, horrid. I like elegant, flowery words, such as estivate, peregrinate, elysium, halcyon. I like wormy, squirmy, mealy words, such as crawl, blubber, squeal, drip. I like sniggly, chuckling words, such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp.

I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood, but before taking the plunge I went to Europe for a year of study, contemplation and horsing around.

I have just returned and I still like words.

May I have few with you?

Robert Pirosh
385 Madison Avenue
Room 610
New York
Eldorado 5-6024

Stephanie Patterson

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Body Heat

The characters in BODY HEAT (written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, 1981) are trapped in a brutal heat wave in a claustrophobically small Florida town. The residents remark that it seems like there was never a time when it was anything but hot. This kind of detachment from a more pleasant time, a detachment that grows so extreme that you forget there ever was a better time, mirrors the way in which the characters are presented in this (and pretty much all) noir movies. Things are so bad that it seems like they always were that way, and maybe they really were. Why go into the backstory of Ned Racine (William Hurt) and Mattie Walker (Kathleen Turner)? They are in a place where the past doesn’t matter anymore. They are thirsty for something with a raw and desperate intensity, and can’t remember a time when they weren’t.

Their thirst is so great that they will do anything to try to quench it, and anything to avoid the painful realization that there is nothing that will. Ned is a small time no-account lawyer who has the lack of morals that would seem to augur success, but he is not successful: laziness and incompetence hold him back. He thinks he hasn’t got hold of the brass ring because fate has not presented him with the chance to go for it, but the evidence for that is to the contrary. He comes to court unprepared, and seems more interested in bedding waitresses than advancing his career. He drinks too much, and the only thing close to a genuine friendship he has is with assistant DA Lowenstein (Ted Danson) who regularly bests him in court, but doesn’t have as much luck with the women. The one healthy thing he does is run, but he always promptly fires up a cigarette when finished.

Mattie Walker seems to be that brass ring. She is quite a serving of woman, a cut above the usual waitress-sized sexual meal Racine is used to having. She tells Racine, or rather gets him to drag it out of her, that her husband Edmund (Richard Crenna) is both despicable and rich. He actually is a pretty morally challenged guy (although he seems to kind of worship her), and Racine decides (surprise!) to be her knight in tarnished armor. Her damsel-in-distress routine and declarations of undying love for Racine would only fool a complete narcissist, but that is what Racine is.

Edmund Walker explains to Racine, in one of those oblique tough guy conversations where they may be talking about what they are talking about and they may be talking about something else, that to be successful you have to be willing to “do what it takes.” Crenna thinks he has Racine pegged as strictly small-time, a guy not willing to do the ugly, the abhorrent, the criminal, to get what he wants. He’s the kind of guy used to having people afraid of him. He’s also used to people wanting his wife, but he figures their fear will outweigh their desire every time. He is arrogant enough to not see that the intensity of Racine’s desire, his desperation, his obtuseness, maybe just the damn heat itself, may finally balance the scale on the other side.

Edmund also doesn’t count on his wife’s ability get men to do what she wants. She enlists Racine to do her dirty work for her, all the while protesting that they aren’t murderers, are they? Could they really be doing this? Maybe their love, their lust, the heat, is so great that the social contract can be violated just this once, sweetheart, because no one ever loved the way we do (lust).

There are plot twists galore in this movie, and they are really impressive, but what interested me most was its tone. There is not one really likeable character in this film, except maybe the minor character of the Police Chief, who goes after Racine even though they are friendly with one another. Lowenstein approaches likeability early on when he tries to warn Racine that Mattie is poison. Later though, he laughs when Racine tells him of Mattie’s 7 year old niece finding her performing fellatio on Racine, and of the child getting an intimate view of him in an aroused state. That soured me on Lowenstein, to say the least. And I think it was supposed to. No one in this film is even tolerable.

So Mattie does what any woman who wants to be caught by a man does (at least according to the Noir School of things): she runs. And she catches the man (Racine) who thinks he is pursuing her. And then submits to him only after he has smashed in a window and taken her in a way that borders on rape, but apparently is just foreplay for a certain class of people.
Mattie convinces Racine that she has never been in love before (and never had orgasms like that before) and he is willing to believe her. Interesting that a guy so cynical, so untrustworthy himself, is so easily taken in. But he is. He believes that she is as desperate for him as he is for her, and even believes her when she says she doesn’t want her husband’s money, but to simply be rid of him, to be with the man she really loves. I smiled when I thought of how it is the lawyer who is supposed to make money off the depravity of human nature, but here finds himself outmaneuvered by a smoky, smoking hot blond so many moves ahead of him he should have surrendered his King, sued for peace, or run for the hills (but, of course, there are no hills to run for in Florida).

Like I said, plot twists galore in this flick. I won’t tell you about any of them, in case you want to see it. The sex scenes were supposed to be pretty hot, especially for 1981, and I guess they were. But what got me was the way that the sex was portrayed as the kind of need that only grows more powerful each time it is satisfied. As if everything you desperately drag in the front door results in two things bolting out the back. Racine and Matty are noir losers, which is what real noir characters are. I won’t tell you if they end up with the money, or if one does and the other doesn’t, because I don’t want to ruin the enjoyment of an ingenious plot, but I will say that the way the movie is shot, the skill with which the bleakness of these characters is portrayed, makes it clear that no matter what they get, it will never be enough.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Box of Pictures

In the course of shifting pieces of furniture Harold and I uncovered a cardboard box that we haven't seen in some time marked "Photos." Marvelous things were inside, carefully sorted into different white catalog envelopes labeled "Trips," "Lambertville," "Harold," "Kate" and so forth. the "Kate" envelope held some very old pictures of my grandmother's: one of her father as a young man; one of my mother as a teenager around 1924 posing with Granny and her sister in front of an automobile, with an older man in the front passenger seat; one of Granny and Grandaddy on the steps of their house on St. Croix Street in Saint Stephen, their iconic picture.

I was instantly able to identify the women in the automobile picture. With my keen eye for aging or youthifying people's features, I can generally spot who's who in all these pictures even though I might have known them only as old people. Then there are the houses. Somewhere I have a picture of nearly every house I ever lived in, although not all of them were in the white envelope.

In the envelope I actually found a picture of Mr. and Mrs. Harney's house in Woodbury, where we rented the ground floor during the war. My Dad was an officer in the Navy. I was a seven-year-old delinquent going to school to nuns. How I hated those women. How they hated me. My mother thought that a Catholic school would give me a superior education. Little did she know that the nuns were telling all the kids I was going to Hell for being a Protestant, and I was studying how to be bad so it would be worth it. But that's a story for another day. I loved our landlords, the Harneys, who lived upstairs, especially Mrs. Harney. She had one son but no daughters, and so she used to make a fuss over my sister and me.

The Christmas presents! We opened hers on Christmas Eve. Although we played with them until they fell apart, they will live in my memory forever. The three-inch bride and groom dolls, the groom in a tiny top hat and tails, the bride in white silk, jointed—I can still hear their porcelain joints rattle—would be worth a fortune today. But as Harold says, it's an evil wizard who turns a toy into a collectible.

See the bit of ironwork on the very top of the roof? My friend Deb Snyder and I used to call it a Yawning. To this day I don't know the correct architectural term for Yawnings. It's too small for a widow's walk.

Here's a picture of an enchanted cottage where we spent part of one summer before my sister was born. It was on the water, a cruel rough beach where I cut my big toe on a rock. My mother sat on the lawn and picnicked with the other ladies while Aunt Kay found me a Band-Aid. How I wept.

After blowing up the picture of the car and having a good look at it I realized that I wasn't entirely sure who the third woman was. At first I thought it was Aunt Billie, but in the twenties I think she was fatter than that. It might be Ethel, the eldest. All the sisters looked something like each other. I thought, too, that the man in the car was my great-grandfather Hill, but I'm not sure of that anymore either. Here's what he looked like, holding my mother. He died in 1924.

Then I thought, maybe it's William Moore, my mother's other grandfather, posing in a car with his daughters and granddaughter. But I'm not sure he was still alive in the twenties. I can't find his death date, and there's nobody left to ask. In fact, no one living can identify the old man in the car. Still, perhaps someone in the internet community can tell me about the automobile.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Thursday, March 26, 2015

We believe it, even when we shouldn’t

Sheila York

Reading: The Art Forger, BA Shapiro
Watching (in the Blu-Ray): The Drop

My best friend Kathy and I agree on a lot. We’re on the same side of the left-right political spectrum. We like the same music, movies and mysteries. And the munchies to have while we're enjoying them.
We also agree that we love TV. We admit it publicly. Well, all right, I admitted it for her. At the end of the day, we both like to click on the DVR and watch what’s there, like opening up a surprise gift. We agree on many of our favorite shows, and we have been loyal to them for years. And years.      
Here we are at Rockefeller Center at Christmas.
Kathy and I also agree that she is way smarter than I am.
When the temperature is 10 below, she wears a hat!
TV (and movie) writers get away with a lot of implausibility, and this occasionally irks some mystery writers, “irks” meaning tweeting/Facebooking/emailing about it till people start to mute/defriend/direct-to-junk-folder them.
If we want plausibility, we know where to get it.
But when it comes to reality, we agree to cut TV more slack than we do novels. Kathy and I understand that TV shows have time constraints that novels don’t. And that, while novels can be riveting while remaining inside a character’s head, that won’t work in visual media. And that writers on many shows have to crank out scripts even faster than James Patterson does books.
We sigh, but we understand why TV suspects regularly agree to be grilled by detectives without a lawyer. Otherwise, nothing much would happen. Many more suspects would agree to eschew the lawyer in real life if real life detectives would agree to spill to the suspect important details of their case the way their TV counterparts do in interrogations. We also understand that TV lawyers have to ask questions in court they don’t already know the answers to, so that a bombshell can drop, or you wouldn’t have any drama. In real life, you wouldn’t have any clients.
Kathy and I also agree to gripe about some shows set in New York City, even when we are devoted to those shows. To be clear, we do not mind when characters round a corner in Midtown and are suddenly in Tribeca. We understand about location availability and what works better for the visuals. But if you're setting your show in New York, you at least by golly ought to make some effort to make it look like New York.
We agree that Castle is the biggest offender of our favorite shows. It’s the version of New York City created by someone with deliberate ignorance and disdain, who never set foot in the city and doesn’t want to bother. Castle's NYC streets are wide, the sidewalks sparsely populated (and with mostly young white people in California colors), the buildings are low rise with broad windows. There is no New York vibe. Once, they put a motel with a parking lot in Manhattan.  

In (mild) defense of their ubiquitous use of broad, well-lit alleys for finding bodies, we do still have a few alleys left in Manhattan, and it's much easier to put a crew in an alley than on the street. 

You'll note however that, even when a real NYC alley is clean, it's narrow and sort of dark. Manhattan has tall buildings, and therefore no golden California light.

It annoys us that the show doesn't want to look anything like New York, but felt that their premise — a writer gets to run with the cops — required New York for cred. 
Having said all that, Kathy and I agree that we will follow Nathan Fillion almost anywhere.
We agree that Elementary has got a bit better at portraying New York City. Of course, when in your very first episode, your writers put a paupers cemetery on Manhattan's Upper East Side, you’ve set a pretty low bar. 

We agree that Person of Interest does the best job of portraying New York among our favorite shows. In fact, they do a darned good job. As a bonus, we get to see Kathy’s apartment building in one of the regularly used establishing shots of Detective Fusco’s precinct house (which was once a real precinct house, but is now a recreation center).

White Collar earned serious points by having characters take daytime strolls down real Manhattan streets and for having affection for the city. 
We agree we will really miss Matt Bomer!
In fact, at least in its first two seasons, its villains couldn’t tear themselves away from the Big Apple. They’d have a 24-hour head start on the heroes, but would choose to stick around so they could be caught. We agree this show ought to still be on the air, and highly recommend it for bingeing.

Recently, however, Kathy and I disagreed.
Yes, disagreed. We were discussing our continued devotion to the two shows whose setups seriously tip the scales of believability. But we disagreed on which was the bigger tipper.
So, let me ask you.
Which is the more preposterous? Person of Interest or Castle?
Is it more unbelievable that there’s a clandestine network out there seeking world power by using every electronic device on the planet? Or that the NYPD would let a mystery writer help them solve murders?
I’m going for #2 there.
I’ve found police detectives to be quite helpful in providing research assistance and sharing their colorful stories. But not one of them — not one — has ever taken me up on my offers to review case files for them.
On the other hand, I once made the mistake of donating money online to a national political organization, and I’m convinced they will chase me for another donation and find me wherever I am for the rest of my life.

Copyright 2015 Sheila York

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Earl Staggs Loves His Two Perfect Jobs

Writer Friends…

It's impossible to say why we like one writer more than others. Or prefer one style of writing more than the rest.

Kinda like when we're drawn to one person in a crowd.

The big guy who sat beside me at an MWA Board meeting and told me about how he just had to put down his cat. Then became my friend for life.

The quiet woman in Lewis Frumkes' Writing Center at Marymount Manhattan, now, many years later, my first reader.

The generous winner of 32 Emmys and many top writing awards - one of the most generous souls on the planet!

I don't recall when or how I first noticed our guest for today - it may have been on a blog, or a mention by a kind friend. Or reading his novel about a former FBI profiler. Or his high-octane thriller about Tall Chambers.

When you read his simple but deep words here today, I think you'll fall under the spell of one of the nicest guys on our planet too.

Please welcome—again—Earl Staggs…

T. J. Straw

I’ve heard it said that if you’re doing something you enjoy, it’s not work. I’ll attest to that because I have two jobs I dearly love.

Bear with me a minute while I tell you how it came about.

I’ve worked since I was fifteen. That’s how old you had to be to get a work permit for an after-school job in Baltimore. My first job was in a men’s secondhand clothing store. My chores were simple: restack pants on the right tables and return jackets and suits to their racks after browsers finished with them, and sweep floors. The owner even paid me extra to meet his daughter after night school and walk her home through the tough neighborhood. I made enough to buy cigarettes, clothes with an employee’s discount and Clearasil for occasional acne breakouts.

Later, while still in high school, I had similar jobs in a five and ten, a women’s clothing store (where I did not buy any clothes), and an Army surplus store. That kept me busy and out of major trouble until I graduated and went in a new direction: office work.

I worked for a couple years in a building contractor’s office followed by a long stint in several departments of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. At the B&O, I crawled up the ladder to Office Manager and met a beautiful coworker named Carol.

Eventually, Carol and I married, and I left the confines of inside office work for outside sales, first in business forms, then insurance, along with jobs in a large bank and a national trade association. I even spent time as an independent business consultant.

During that time, Carol and I concentrated heavily on our most important job, which was raising two beautiful daughters and spoiling four beautiful grandchildren.

You may be wondering why I’m telling you all that boring personal history. Simple. I wanted to impress you with the fact that I’ve held a number of jobs. Some I liked and some I stayed with only because I needed a pay check.

And then it was time to retire. I thought it was time to take life easy. Maybe take up golf or gardening. Little did I know that, before long, I would have two new jobs, both of which I dearly loved. Besides that, I didn’t like golf or gardening.

I decided to try something I’d always wanted to do… well, ever since my high school English teacher said I had a natural talent for writing. I decided to try my hand at writing fiction.

I call writing a job because it involves hard work. Ask any writer.

To begin, I signed up for a writing class at the community college. The class happened to be about writing short mystery stories. It was a natural fit since mystery had always been my favorite genre for reading and for movies and TV shows. By the end of the class, I had written a short story called “The Missing Sniper” involving a psychic private eye and, of course, a murder. It took a while to get it published in a magazine. (Actually, it appeared in two magazines simultaneously, but how that happened is a whole ’nuther long story.)

The response to the story was so positive and encouraging, I wrote a mystery novel featuring the same protagonist and called it MEMORY OF A MURDER. Over the next few years, more of my short stories found publication as well as another novel titled JUSTIFIED ACTION, which I called a Mystery/Thriller. I also published a collection of my stories called, of all things, SHORT STORIES OF EARL STAGGS.

I love my writing job. I love the part where I stare at a blank screen and accept the challenge of sprinkling a lot of words all over it in such a way that a good story is told. Someone once said it’s 10% writing and 90% rewriting. I believe that. Rewriting is taking what seemed like a good idea but turned into a hodge podge of words in need of rearrangement, replacement, and refinement. It can take hours, days or longer.

Finally, the right words are in the right place, the story works, and it was worth all the hard work. Validation that you’ve met the challenge comes when someone agrees to publish it. That’s the part I love best.

After that happens a few times, you can say you’re a writer. You may not say it aloud and you may not say it to anyone else. It may only be a silent feeling somewhere inside. But, for sure, you’re a writer, Once you reach that point, you will always be a writer because you can’t not write. The challenge is irresistible.

Earl the Writer
I was only a year into retirement and struggling to become a writer, however, when I realized something. Writing is a solitary, inside job. When I left inside jobs to be a salesman, I found I enjoyed being out and about in the big old world and spending time with other members of the human race. It also dawned on me that if you don’t have to get up in the morning, go somewhere and do something, you can get old. I didn’t want to get old. There was too much I still wanted to do.

So, I decided to get another job. I didn’t want a full-time job because that would cut into my writing time. I wanted something part-time, not hard or too demanding, but a job that got me out of the house and gave me access and interaction with other people. Maybe I could stand in the doorway of Walmart and say, “Welcome to Walmart. Do you want a cart?” That was one avenue I considered in my search.

Then, purely by chance, I came up with the perfect second job. I found in my yard a flier from the local school district. They were hiring school bus drivers. I’d never considered anything like that, but I was curious and called them. I went for an appointment and was hired the same day.

Driving a school bus would entail working a couple hours in the morning to get the kids to school and a couple in the afternoon to get them home again. In between, there would be about six hours of free time. Time I could spend writing. Perfect!

It took a while to get started. You have to study a manual about the size of the Dallas phone directory and take a test to get a Commercial Drivers License. Then you have to actually learn how to drive a bus. You have to get used to operating a vehicle as big as three cars with a dashboard having as many buttons and switches as a small airplane. You not only have to drive and use all those buttons and switches, but you have to keep an eye on fifty kids behind you. If they’re not sitting down or are making too much noise, you have to remind them they must remain seated while the bus is in motion and to use their inside voice. Five minutes later, you have to remind them again. Kids will be kids, you know.

In spite of that, once I started, I loved it. It helps that I like kids. Most of them.

My kids range from kindergarten to eighth grade and while spending time with them in the morning and again in the afternoon, I get to know them. Occasionally, some will misbehave. I even have fun with the discipline. Once I told them, “If you don’t behave, I’ll have to kill you. I don’t mind going back to jail. Some of my best friends are there.” They know I’m a kidder and they laughed, but they got the message. I enjoy seeing them every day and watching them grow. The kindergartners and first graders are the most lovable. I get plenty of smiles and hugs from them.

I also get to know their parents and teachers. Oddly enough, in conversation with them, the fact that I’m a writer always seems to pop out. Once a salesman, always a salesman, I suppose. Many of the teachers and parents have bought my books and frequently ask when the next one will come out.

Earl the Bus Driver
Now that you’ve read all the way to here, you know how I came to have my two jobs. You’re now invited to visit my website at where you can:

Read Chapter One of MEMORY OF A MURDER
Read Chapter One of JUSTIFIED ACTION
Read THE DAY I ALMOST BECAME A GREAT WRITER which some say is the funniest short story I’ve ever written
Read WHITE HATS AND HAPPY TRAILS about the day I spent with a boyhood idol, Roy Rogers.
and more.

I know some people with jobs they love, but I don’t know anyone with two of them. I think I’m a lucky guy to have two that go together like Holmes and Watson, Castle and Beckett, peanut butter and jelly.

What do you think?

© 2015 Earl Staggs