Tag Archives: characters

Writers and Actors: Daniel Day-Lewis

SANTA MONICA, CA – JANUARY 10: Actor Daniel Day-Lewis, winner of Best Actor for “Lincoln,” poses in the press room at the 18th Annual Critics’ Choice Movie Awards held at Barker Hangar on January 10, 2013 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

This past week, Summer began and Daniel Day-Lewis announced that he was retiring from acting. At first, I thought it was one of those internet jokes that pop up all the time.  But no. This news was real. So, I sought out the article to get the details, and I hoped, a reason. But no, no reason. Only that it was a private decision and there would be no further comment. In other words, it’s none of our business why.

I was terribly sad about this. Day-Lewis is an actor I’ve been following since 1986 with a mixture of amazement and profound respect. I’ve written at this blog how his performance in Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans taught me to focus on character and helped me to push through a major writer’s block. His performances make me feel human, creative, joyful, and eager to write. I’ll miss him, miss the anticipation and wonder of what he’ll do next.  His last movie, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson who directed him in There Will be Blood, is supposed to be in theaters in December of this year.  That will be an event.

He has a Wikipedia page that I found informative. I had not known that he’s now a “Sir,” having been knighted in 2014. Or that he lives primarily in Ireland where he can be a private citizen, more or less, and raise his family in peace. He’s also 60 years old. So it’s not like he’s retiring when he’s 35. But I can’t help feeling that his retirement is a tremendous loss for acting as well as for writers.

In Variety online, Owen Gleiberman writes about the impact of Day-Lewis’ retirement, reviewing the history of acting in the last century: the Olivier School vs. the Brando School. What Day-Lewis did was to combine the two, not only paying close attention to the external details of a character — hair, gestures, facial expressions, voice, etc. — but also to the details of the character’s personality and emotional states. Day-Lewis acted 3-dimensionally. It had to be exhausting at times. Gleiberman ends his article with this:

“He didn’t just want to show up in a movie as some version of himself; he wanted to transcend himself — to literally make acting into an out-of-body experience. The question going forward isn’t whether Day-Lewis is really retiring. It’s whether the spirit of transformation that he represents has come to seem like a mountain that actors no longer need, or even want, to climb.”

For me, Daniel Day-Lewis the actor will always be an inspiration, a guiding light, that I’ll turn to when I need to be reminded about what is truly important in writing. For that, I will be forever grateful.

 

Am I Evan Quinn?

When I first began developing the characters and story for Perceval’s Secret, I read an article about writing fiction that theorized that all first novels were either autobiographical or coming-of-age stories, or both. Ugh. I remember thinking at the time, “Well, if I wanted to write about my life and experiences, I’d write an autobiography, not a novel. And the last thing I want to write is a coming-of-age story.”  But then someone at work whom I’d told about the novel talked to others at work and suddenly they all thought I must be writing about them! Geez. Writers just cannot win, can they?!  If readers aren’t thinking that we’re writing about ourselves disguised as fiction, they believe we’re writing about them.  Author Jami Attenberg writes about this in The New York Times article “Stop Reading My Fiction as The Story of My Life.”

Nothing could stop me from writing Perceval’s Secret in the end, although it went through several versions and there were some large chunks of time when life demanded I focus on life rather than writing. When I was proofing the e-files before publication, I saw certain elements that I realized came from my own life and I would not have been able to write about them without my life experiences. But they are also not me in the novel .  All through my writing of this novel, I was meticulous about insuring that none of the characters in any way resembled real people, including me.

How did I do that? Well, it’s all about revision and research.

Once the first draft was done and I could see the story as a whole and who the characters were, I went through it and noted questions I had about the characters as well as locations, technology, etc. Evan was a primary focus as the main character, but I also did some research about intelligence agencies (Bernie Brown) and the Austrian police (Klaus Leiner) and how Austria would respond to Evan. I knew little about the life of a conductor, only what happens when they step on the podium during a concert. So I spoke with the people who worked with them as well as conductors themselves, and I did a lot of reading.  I went to orchestra rehearsals to observe how conductors actually work with an orchestra to prepare a concert. And I even talked with people who knew conductors on a more personal level to get an idea of just who they were as people and how they approached music. This research took several years, and I did another round for a year about 10 years ago. I had a special concern that no reader would mistake Evan for some famous American conductor.

And then after the research, I began revising and Evan took over, as characters usually do. Once I had all that information from the research in my head, he could show me the kind of person he was, his flaws, his strengths, his dreams, his vulnerabilities, his fears. He showed me how being a conductor was a way of life, not only a job. It takes absolute dedication and drive to achieve any kind of success.  He showed me what he thought of his life’s circumstances, the pain within those circumstances, and his denial. I had set out to write a villain as the main character of my novel, but I found that even though Evan may do awful things, he’s not evil. That raised the question: what or who is evil in this story? Although I began the story thinking that Evan would be the evil villain and I wanted to explore why he was that way, I failed in making him the evil villain because he revealed his humanity to me as I worked on revisions.

Attempting to make Evan Quinn the evil villain was one of my tactics for making it clear that he was not me. When I look at him now, I see a separate personality, a separate person who’s unlike me. The aspect of his life that comes the closest to my experience (but does not recreate it) is his PTSD and his emotional pain. What has been revelatory for me is the way in which Evan has handled his PTSD and emotional pain so far, and how that affects his behavior and perspective of the world.

As Jami Attenberg writes in her article, and what I’d like to tell all readers of my writing:

Maybe it’s only natural to want a glimpse behind the curtain. Fiction is a magic trick of sorts. But at its best it doesn’t just conjure up an imaginary world; it makes the real one disappear, it makes the author disappear. Only a book can do this — let you lose yourself so completely. So, if you can, forget about everything else. Just be there with the book.

Becoming a Writer: “Whisper of the Heart”

Hayao Miyazaki (from documentary "The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness")

Hayao Miyazaki (from documentary “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness”)

Life demands and a lack of money have prevented me from going out to movies very often in the last couple of years. I had to end my Netflix subscription also a year ago in order to save money. I hadn’t realized how much I missed movies until a co-worker and I got into a conversation about the brilliant Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. We’re both dedicated fans of his work, and my co-worker offered to loan me an early movie that Miyazaki had done the screenplay and storyboards for and I’d not seen. All he’d say about it was that it was sweet and wonderful, more grounded in reality than Miyazaki’s later work but with touches of magic. I jumped at the opportunity to see a Miyazaki movie I hadn’t seen before.

DVD from Disney

DVD from Disney

In Whisper of the Heart, Shizuku, a young teen, has reached the point when she’s begun to question the direction of her life and what her true talents are. She loves to read and her father works in a library which gives Shizuku easy access to lots of books. She notices that a boy, Seiji, has checked out all the books before her that she’s been reading. This strange fact sparks her curiosity and imagination. One day, as she’s on her way to the library on the train, a cat with one purple ear catches her attention. The cat jumps up onto the seat next to her and studiously ignores her attempts to befriend him.  When the cat gets off the train at her stop, she runs after him, follows him up hills to a lovely residential neighborhood. True to cat behavior, he continues to ignore Shizuku, but seems to point the way to an intriguing antique store where she meets the elderly owner and The Baron, a cat figurine.

By this point, I’m totally hooked into this story, especially as Shizuku keeps running into a mysterious boy, Seiji, who turns out to be the grandson of the antique store’s owner. I don’t want to give away too much of this gentle story revealing the emotional lives of creative teens and how they help, support, and inspire each other. What I want to review about this movie is how Miyazaki reveals the life of the creative artist, and what the creative process is really like.  For Shizuku is a budding writer, and Seiji a budding violin maker who can also play a mean violin.

Shizuku and the Cat (Studio Ghibli/Disney)

Shizuku and the Cat (Studio Ghibli/Disney)

How does someone become creative? More specifically, how does someone become a creative artist?  Every human being on this planet is creative in his or her own way.  For example, problem solving requires creativity and imagination. Relating to each other successfully takes a lot of imagination (for empathy) and creativity. But when it comes to art, this is when the human mind and imagination fuse to bring forth truths of existence in ways that stimulate the imaginations of the people who are experiencing the art. As Miyazaki has done with Whisper of the Heart.

I believe that we are each born to certain lives but we each have the choice of whether to fulfill those particular lives or do something else. My father, for example, loved music and art — he played the clarinet and painted oil pictures — but he chose not to fulfill that creative spark; instead he chose to pursue a job in financial services. He allowed the powerful influence of American society to pursue “business” and the making of money to squash whatever creative inclinations he had. Fortunately for me, he supported my creative pursuits from my first forays in elementary school, but only up to a point. He notoriously said to me when I announced my music major in college, “You can’t eat a piano,” and when I told him and my mother that I’d finally recognized my creative spirit in writing, he responded with the pithy, “Writers are prostitutes.”

Shizuku and the Baron

Shizuku and the Baron (Studio Ghibli/Disney)

Which brings me to the crux of Whisper of the Heart. Being a creative artist is extremely difficult even in the best of times or most supportive of conditions. Other people — family, friends, as well as strangers — will pressure the artist to do something more “practical,” to not pursue creative expression, and this pressure can be incredibly strong, often hurtful, and constant. It takes power and a belief in the strength of the soul’s desire to be creative in spite of the pressure not to be. And then there are the self doubts. Both Shizuku and Seiji eloquently show and tell others their doubts about their abilities and talents. But they keep going because they must. And that need is inspired and supported and sustained by each other as well as Seiji’s grandfather. (Not to mention the cat with one purple ear and The Baron!)

My favorite moment in this movie (in addition to the moment Shizuku meets the cat)? It’s when, after Seiji’s grandfather has read her story and told her that it’s a wonderful raw gem that now needs cutting and polishing, Shizuku bursts into tears, wailing that she doesn’t know if she can do it.  Been there, done that!  Many times. So, Whisper of the Heart is not only Miyazaki’s homage to the creative process, but the moving story of a young writer discovering her imagination and the creative process in writing.

I loved this movie! (It’s now on my Amazon wish list.)  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the creative process, in writing, in Japanese animation, or in the early work of Hayao Miyazaki to see how his creative expression was developing.

cute-cat-picture-wallpaper by jasonlefkowitz.net

Adam Burns, or Characters that are cut

Not Adam, but close to how I imagined him

Not Adam, but close to how I imagined him

Adam Burns has been on my mind a lot lately. He was an old guy, a bum, a journalist in hiding in a very early draft of Perceval’s Secret.  Evan Quinn met him once, in a wooded area not far from the Minneapolis neighborhood where the Quinns lived. Evan was ten years old. He knew Adam as “Old Man Burns,” the neighborhood drunken bum. The encounter Evan has with Adam brings into laser sharp focus for Evan the danger that his family is in. Adam isn’t really drunk when he meets Evan — he’s acting drunk and stupid — and he tells Evan that his father must leave the country. Later, Evan learns that Adam was murdered, his body found along the Mississippi River, a bullet in his brain.

I killed off Adam Burns and that entire encounter with Evan. In fact, just before Evan meets Adam, Evan and his friend Paul Caine have been hounded and abused by Harold Smith and his gang. I didn’t realize it at the time I cut out that entire section of the draft, but Harold Smith would become Evan’s nemesis in the Perceval series. He survives in flashbacks in Perceval’s Secret as well as in the flesh late in the novel. But I never put the childhood section back into the novel. And Adam Burns was lost, except in my mind. Now he haunts me.

Have you ever been haunted by characters that you’ve cut out of stories or novels? It’s strange. It’s like they want their own stories, they do not want to be forgotten. I have yet to figure out why Adam keeps popping up in my mind. What’s his deal?

When I began work on the Perceval series, it wasn’t a series. It wasn’t even a novel. It was a short story about a ten-year-old boy who wanted to be an orchestra conductor when he grew up, but the circumstances of his life in America in 2048 would make that dream impossible to fulfill unless he left the country, according to Adam “Old Man” Burns. Evan senses that Burns has a secret, and indeed he did. I knew his backstory although I never wrote it. It was enough that it was secret and something dangerous that Burns must protect or he could lose his life.

Adam’s backstory: first of all, Adam Burns wasn’t his real name. He made certain no one knew his real name, including me. He’d been a famous journalist on the East Coast during the Change, the period of time during which the New Economic Party (NEP) consolidated power in America with a permanent majority on the federal and state levels of government.

Like any journalist worth his salt defending Freedom of the Press as well as the Bill of Rights, Adam had reported on those in power, exposing their corruption, greed, and lust for power. He’d reported on their narcissism, comparing them to the greatest dictators of the 20th Century. He knew the NEP cared only about enriching itself and insuring that they got everything they wanted. Adam had reported also on the Resistance, the Underground, and the Civil War. But the NEP wanted the American people to know only what they told them. So they waged war against journalists, arresting many who simply disappeared. The NEP wanted complete control over the media. They silenced the media by any means necessary.

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The people had rebelled — the country was embroiled in a Civil War, with western states seceding, southern states threatening to do so, and Washington slamming shut all of America’s borders. By the time Evan is ten, Adam has been underground for over five years, running for his life. In Minnesota, he thought he’d be safer because Minnesota was a hot bed of resistance, led by Evan’s father, a poet, and Paul’s father, a composer. Artists throughout the country had joined the Underground, the loosely organized resistance movement. They could offer Adam a way out of the country.

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I cut Evan’s childhood section when I realized that I was writing a novel and I needed to restructure it to focus on his adult life, what eventually became Perceval’s Secret. Now I find it a bit ironic that Evan carries a dangerous secret in the novel, one that could cost him his life. So perhaps Adam did survive in the importance of keeping dangerous secrets.

Writing the Future: the Mars Trilogy

KSR Mars TrilogyThis past week, I finished reading the final novel in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy: Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars. Besides bringing our beautiful planet earth’s physical attributes into focus for me to the point of overwhelming gratitude, this trilogy also provoked thoughts of just how difficult it is to write the future.

But how hard could it be to write the future? I mean, all a writer has to do is make things up, right?

Wrong.

For Perceval’s Secret and the rest of the Perceval series, I spent months creating the world of 2048-2050, thinking about all aspects of human life, plus environmental, political, geological, and technology concerns. I read books about futurism, which I hadn’t really known existed before. I read futurists’ predictions about the mid-21st century, fascinated by what they emphasized and what they didn’t. Then I had to put myself into the future I’d created in order to look for major holes in logic or in setting, and to write about it with confidence. It was hard.

I can only imagine the amount of research Robinson must have done for his trilogy.  He focuses a lot of his attention on the science of Mars, the science of human survival on Mars, and surprisingly, the geology of Mars because of one character, Ann Clayborne. Robinson put me there on Mars with his characters, especially for the first two books. I found it totally plausible what the characters experienced in terms of the Martian environment as well as in social and political terms. He didn’t spend a lot of energy, however, on technology which surprised me. He covered as much as he needed and no more. And I was quite satisfied with his future for the first two books.

Mars Bonneville Crater (Photo: NASA.gov)

Mars Bonneville Crater (Photo: NASA.gov)

But not for the third book, Blue Mars. The first two books remained true to their setting, i.e. Mars with all the challenges it presented. In the third book, Robinson takes us elsewhere in the solar system because humans have settled other places and Mars politically wants to have influence over them. While this was plausible from a social political point of view, I missed the survival experiences of humans on Mars. I missed how the personalities and desires of the core ensemble of characters intertwined and propelled the story in interesting and surprising ways. And it wasn’t because I didn’t like the younger generation of Martians. I found it fascinating how, in the third book, Robinson focused so much on the social aspects of living on Mars.

It took me several days after I finished the third book to figure out why I felt so dissatisfied with that last book. I realized that Robinson had abandoned the explorer and survival aspects that had begun the trilogy and shifted to a medical aspect. In fact, I realized that the gerontological treatment he introduced in the first book had struck me as a mildly interesting literary device to extend the lives of the original settlers through the trilogy. But it didn’t bother me at all in the first and second books. It bothered me in the third book which became a meditation on memory. So, the trilogy ends not on new ideas about space exploration in our solar system and beyond, but on a small group of people who are trying to remember their pasts. While interesting at times, I thought it belonged in a different book entirely, one about the medical and physical aspects of living off earth.  A book about the future trying to recapture the past or the old chestnut of humans seeking immortality.

Mars (Photo: NASA.gov)

Mars (Photo: NASA.gov)

Had Robinson run out of ideas about Mars settlements in the future? Had he lost interest in the science? Or had he written all he wanted to write about them? I don’t know, although it felt that way while I was reading the third book. Robinson showed that humans would do everything possible to recreate earth and life on earth in his trilogy, and I wondered how humans would evolve to adapt to the Martian environment. I continued to read despite my growing dissatisfaction and impatience with the third book because I really enjoyed Robinson’s prose, and I loved the way he threaded two elements through all three books: the Red vs. Green struggle, and John Boone and his death.

Finally, Robinson demonstrated just how difficult it is to write the future. I was very impressed, however, with just how far he went.