Thursday, November 19, 2009

Wherein This Blogger Meets Stephen King

To get a blue wristband, the wristband that guarantees your book gets signed, we had to send two emails at midnight on November 5th. Before the wife and I slept, she drafted two emails on two different Blackberries from two different email accounts. The alarm was set for 11:58 PM. Two minutes later, she pressed the 'Send' button on both, and we both went back to sleep. The next day we got confirmation: on Friday the 13th, we would see Stephen King. And he would sign our books.

The day arrives. I leave work an hour early and drive south to the Barnes & Noble in Buckhead.

The bookstore's in a strip mall, and when I get there the line has already wound its way from the double doors of the Barnes & Noble to the grocery store next door. I go inside, buy my copy of "Under the Dome", Mr. King's latest work, give my name to the man at the table, receive my blue wristband, and get in line outside. I don't have to wait but a couple minutes before the line moves inside.

We wait. The wife and I talk. Seven o'clock, the scheduled start for the signing comes and goes. I feel anxious. I still don't know what to say, if anything. How many hundreds of tall 32-year old dorks have gushed to King at book signings? Should I say something painfully earnest and instantly regretted, like "You're the reason I became a writer"? I wince at the thought. Why should he get the blame for that? I'm still considering when a cheer goes up in the children's section. The author has arrived. An excited murmur runs up the line; people who were sitting, now stand. The show is getting on the road.

The line is long but moves quickly, leading us through the sections of the bookstore few visit: True Crime, Sports, Car Maintenence. And with every bookshelf we pass, we see more of the set-up they've created for the author. A three-sided black curtain has been set at the top of a short set of stairs, with a big wooden table and padded chair placed inside the enclosure for the author working the pen. And then, as I make the turn around the Occult shelf, I see the man himself.

Gray and thin and bent over the book he's signing, Stephen King and I are officially in the same space. For the past 20+ years, I've watched him age and change with each new author photo, but here I am, seeing him with my own eyes. It is a strange experience. Seeing him there, the long face, the hair that will not thin or recede, the omnipresent eyeglasses, I feel I already know him, the way I'd feel if I saw someone I went to school with, and as I think this I am struck once again by the fundamental bizarreness of fame, the way it creates the illusion of a meaningful two-way relationship where no relationship exists at all. As evidence of this oddness: much of this post.

We get close. Getty Images is there to take some photos. Below is King posing with his novel (the 3rd longest of his career) for the Getty photographer. A short time after, I see him raise his arms to chest height and rotate his torso first right and then left in a stretch, settling in, limbering up.

The handlers of this event, some Barnes and Noble folks and some folks undoubtedly hired by the publisher, are the event's greasemen: they keep stuff moving. Requests for photos are knocked down pitilessly. Loquacious signees are subtly edged from the stage. This is a signing, they say with their stern faces and all-business body language, not a chance for you freaks to commune with your personal hero. Which is fine. We are, in this case, beggars, and thus cannot be choosers. King rarely does tours anymore, and never visits the Deep South, so we're all glad to take whatever's given.

We are next. I hand mine and my wife's books to the man in the suit and glasses and tell him, "This is my wife's book, and this is mine. He can sign both and she'll take a picture?" The man in the suit and glasses frowns and shakes his head. I can't quite hear what he says, but he's clearly not thrilled with my brazen and outrageous plan. All I know is I'm getting a picture of this, whether it stresses this guy out or not. The man in suit and glasses hands my books to the woman designated to open books and slide them over to King to be signed, but there's a fan still standing at the table, saying something to King or just watching him sign her books, I don't know, and then he's signing Peggy's book and the fan is still there.

The fan moves away finally and I step to the table. Stephen King is now signing my book.

Shit, say something, I think. He's almost done! I can't let this chance go by without saying a single thing, I'll be kicking myself for years. Literally kicking myself. I'll swing into black depressions whenever my mind chances upon the memory. He's done signing.

"So what should I read next?" I ask. "You got me into 'Edgar Sawtelle' and 'The Ruins', both of which were great, so what should I get into next?"

King closes my book, slides it over to the person designated to hand signed books to their owners, and sits back in his chair. "Ah," he says, mulling. King reads a lot, 80 books a year on average, many of them review copies of books yet to be published, sent to him by editors looking to get a blurb, so I imagine him trying to think of a book out now. He can't think of one. Instead, he says, "There's a book coming out next summer called 'The Bastard', by--" the author's name I didn't quite make out, but it sounded a bit like James Crowley, whose novel "Little,Big" I just finished and frickin loved.

"All right," I say. "I'll read that! Thanks!" He nods, puts pen to paper to sign the next book, I take the signed novels from the nice lady and head back down the stairs.

I've been to lots of book signings but this was the first and likely the only signing where I got to meet someone who's had a real appreciable influence on me. Meeting the writers of Sesame Street or Fred Rodgers himself (RIP) might be the few equivalents. I loved his books as a kid, and though my feelings about his work now are a bit more reserved than they once were, he's one of the few writers who made the transition with me from adolescence into adulthood. He's still good and worth reading and, I think for some books, re-reading. And more than just making scaring people with writing seem like the best possible job on earth to a kid who liked books and movies more than he liked being a kid in middle-school, his books helped shape my worldview. Anyone familiar with King books, or even the film adaptations of his books, knows that certain themes pop up again and again in his stories and, reading him as a kid, I soaked it all up without question: the military is untrustworthy, religious zealots are evil but wrap themselves up in 'good', life can end suddenly and violently and unfairly, etc. I still believe those things, so meeting the guy who had a hand in putting those ideas in my head so many years ago was a big deal for me. I'm glad he was a nice guy, didn't blow me off, and that he appears to be, more or less, exactly as he seems in his conversational notes to his readers and in his columns in Entertainment Weekly: friendly, human, engaged and serious about what he does, and always ready to recommend a book.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mini-Review of "Men Who Stare at Goats", "Kick-Ass" Trailer's Up, New Blog to Check Out

Three things, and three things real quick.

1.) "The Men Who Stare at Goats". Checked this out on Sunday night after an exhausting leaf blowing/raking session that afternoon. Not terribly impressed. I knew right off the bat it wasn't going to be as good as it appeared in the first trailer I saw for it (before the studio decided to start up with the ridiculous "No Goats, no Glory" ad campaign) because Ewan McGregor's voice-over is the first thing I heard. His voice-over comes on a lot, and Ewan struggling to keep an "American" accent consistent for an hour and a half is distracting and usually, not necessary to the film. The film starts strongly, but by the end, just runs out of juice. Also, I experienced one of the most temporally disorienting moments I've had coming out of a movie. I swore the movie had been at least 2 hours and some odd number of minutes, but a quick look at the clock on the drive home and I realized it had only been an hour and a half long. Ninety-four minutes to be exact, and I'm sure that's counting the credits. I'm going to chalk that up to the episodic and wandering quality of the movie. It felt like a literal adaptation of a good magazine piece. It just didn't work. I think I'd also put some of the blame on the director. According to Deadline Hollywood Daily's Nikki Finke, Grant Heslov is one of Clooney's producing buddies. Producers shouldn't direct. When they do, you get this movie or one like the execrable "American Sweethearts."

2.) Kick-Ass trailer. This went up yesterday. Check it out here. Less good than I'd hoped, but I'm thinking I'll like the full trailer more. The comic (and what I'm hearing is the film is a pretty close adaptation of the comic) is real and dark and original. This teaser trailer only touches on some of the originality of Mark Millar's idea, but not much at all on the real or the dark. My guess is they'll show more of the arc of the film, including why this comic was so harrowing and a bit controversial.

3.) Finally, everybody needs to check out friend o' the blog Nathan Hines' new blog, located at Nathan, as some of you may know, is an aspiring writer and business mogul who lives in Taiwan with his wife and two daughters. So, in addition to giving you the occasional taste of life in Taiwan (like the photo of a dude carrying his Schnauzer in a baby sling), he writes candidly about some of the conflicts one has to deal with when pursuing personal career goals while also being responsible to one's family. It's well-written and a good read, and worth checking in on.

Okay, and that's it.

Friday, November 06, 2009

A Brief Dispatch from the World of Fantasy Literature

George R.R. Martin, arguably the best fantasy writer working today, has written four books in the Song of Ice and Fire series, the first of which, "A Game of Thrones", is already a classic of the genre. The thing that makes these books different from other similarly oriented fantasy novels, is that backroom politics and palace intrigue are the novels' focus. In the story, motivated players from all over the kingdom conspire and scheme, backstab allies and create unlikely alliances ("some friends become enemies, some enemies become friends") all to better their odds of toppling the current king and taking the throne for themselves. The good guys are complex but unapologetically good, and the bad guys are so goddamn evil you gnash your teeth when they appear in the story and you cheer when they get the sword in the ribs, or whatever death Martin's cooked up for them. Yeah, it's that kind of book. Which is not to say it's broad or simply written. The plotting Martin does here is as elaborate as you'll find anywhere, but he carries it off and doesn't make you see the difficulty in what he's done. This becomes less true as the books go on, but the first is a classic for a reason. And the end of the book, well -- it's memorable. I strongly recommend the book.

So, now that the glorious light that was the "Lord of the Rings" movies has begun to dim in the minds of geeks everywhere, and the next Guillermo Del Toro-directed Tolkein adaptations are still a couple years away, what fantasy awesomeness will arise to fill the gap?

Enter HBO's "Game of Thrones", filming in Ireland right now (very close to where DGG's "Your Highness" is filming, incidentally.) HBO's putting a lot of cash into the pilot, and word is they're likely to pick it up for a full first season. David Benioff is co-running the show, which is encouraging -- I liked the "25th Hour" and apparently his latest novel, "City of Thieves" was reviewed very favorably, so I think the likelihood of a faithful, well-adapted show is pretty good.

But the casting is where they've already gone so clearly right. The Daily Beast published an article about the growing geek interest in the project, and put together an excellent page with all the characters accompanied by the photos of the actors portraying them. They nailed pretty much everyone. Sean Bean will play the patriarch, Eddard Stark, the reluctant noble from the northlands who's asked to travel to the capital city and serve as the king's consigliere. And then there's Peter Dinklage, who's been given the role of the crafty dwarf, Tyrion, the best character in the series. It's a pretty exciting cast and I can't wait for this to air.

Martin's been toiling away on the fifth book but, sadly, there's no light at the end of that tunnel -- he's been working on it for quite a long time, and now he's on-set in Ireland watching the filming, which probably means he's not working too hard on finishing the monstrosity he's created. I can hardly blame him. I'd rather watch great actors re-create scenes from my book than write new scenes too. Writing's hard.

Anyway, thought I'd give the uninitiated a glimpse of what geeks are going to be most excited about next.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Comic Book Artist's Process

So many stories to tell, so little time. Especially for the graphic novelist.

Comic book writer and artist Doug TenNapel is the focus of a short video about his process of making comics. In it he talks a bit about how the time allotted to us -- provided we're lucky enough to live all 75 years of the average US citizen's life span -- is far too short to make all the art we aspire to make, whether it's comics, movies, music, books or what have you. Which feels especially true to a serial procrastinator like myself. To speed himself up so he can put more of what's in his head on paper, he's made some adjustments, like inking 4 pages everyday, which is a hell of a lot, even for fast inkers. This does exact a toll on the quality of the inks, I would say, but he gets more done. He does also say he's more interested in telling a story than in making the image perfect, which results in a few examples of hurried-looking brushwork, at least in his 2005 Image comic, "Tommysaurus Rex", but certainly many more pages are done well than not.

There's also some interesting tidbits on brushwork, types of ink, and a few time lapses of TenNapel inking panels. I found it all pretty interesting.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

"Avatar" Trailer Hits

The new full "Avatar" trailer is up. I'm both more heartened by the fuller glimpse and a bit more disappointed. I'm heartened because I can see now that Cameron hasn't gone off the deep end and made "The Phantom Menace." The conventions of the sub-genre Cameron's staked out appear to have been followed closely, which should keep him out of abysmal failure territory. Which is also why I'm more disappointed than I was after just seeing the teaser. Not to be the cynic who's always looking for which movie the new movie most rips off, but, based on on this trailer, "Avatar" seems like a sci-fi remake of "Dances With Wolves."

The two movies aren't just similar because they both tell the story of a guy who sees how the natives he's supposed to fear/hate are not scary/evil, finds their simple way of life superior to his own and decides to protect it, it's similar because it appears to grab a lot more from Costner's movie than just the throughline. The loss or near-loss of a leg in service to the US Military (John Dunbar nearly loses his, but gets to keep his because of his heroic/suicidal diversion ride run - the paraplegic hero of this movie will have the use of his legs returned to him once he's proven himself in battle), the immersion into their primitive culture, the slow disillusionment with his own side, the fraught love story with the native girl, so on and so forth. That's a fine story, and Jim Cameron sure could have picked some worse plots to try out. But we've all seen it. "Dances" was kind of hokey in its way, but also really well done. So what about "Avatar" is going to improve on the original story? Cameron wrote it, so we know it's not going to be the snappy dialogue. The 3-D? The CG and motion-capture? Does anyone get excited about non-Pixar CG anymore?

Only the full movie will tell the tale. I hope Cameron makes me a believer.