Wednesday, January 30, 2013

This penny monster is about to explode!, or, Pre-Internet investment spam

We are reaching the end! February--always, somehow, less intolerable than the eleven weeks of January--is nearly upon us, and that means the group snoop into the writers' postbox that has been this month of blogging is coming to an end. I hope you've enjoyed it. February should find me with my feet properly beneath me, work beaten into quivering submission, travel translated to its most manageable state, memory.

But I can't let you turn the calendar page without first apprising you of an amazing investment opportunity--brought to you by P. G. Wodehouse in a letter to his daughter Leonora of September 27, 1920, found in the lovely new collection P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters:
I've just had a letter from a man in California who wants me to buy an interest in a gold mine for five hundred pounds. He says "I happened to pick up the Sept Cosmopolitan and on one of the front pages I see a list of authors and I said to myself that bunch could put this over and I have a hunch they will and your name is in the list and I'm writing you along with the others to send me your check for twenty-five hundred dollars and write on the check that it is for one-thirtieth interest in the eight-year lease of the Kid Gold Mine and then after a while I will send you a check for your share of a million dollars or a letter of regret telling you I have spent the money digging through the mountain and my hunch was a bum one, but anyway I expect your check." Sanguine sort of johnny, what? I'm going to put the letter in a story.
Editor Sophie Ratcliffe helpfully notes that Wodehouse--if not, one assumes, the miner--made good on his statement, using the anecdote in Big Money.

The speculator, methinks, was about a decade too late: Twain would have been a better mark.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Bucking up

{Photos by rocketlass.}

The past weekend saw Chicago weather take a turn for the mildly apocalyptic--not the seventh seal, mind you; more like the first seal. If I recall correctly, that one is to be accompanied by thunder, with which we were copiously graced during last night's winter storm, which resulted in sheets of ice calculated to make any sane person yearn for the South Seas. So that's where we turn in our January trawl through the writers' post office, to Robert Louis Stevenson, writing from his Hawaiian retreat on December 28, 1893 to friend and supporter Richard La Galliene:
And more than all this I had, and I have to thank you for, the intimate loyalty you have shown to myself; for the eager welcome to you give to what is good—for the courtly tenderness with which you touch on my defects. I begin to grow old; I have given my top note, I fancy; — and I have written too many books. The world begins to be weary with the old booth; and, if not weary, familiar with the familiarity that breeds contempt. I do not know that I am sensitive to criticism, if it be hostile; I am sensitive indeed, when it is friendly; and when I read such criticism as yours, I am emboldened to go on and praise God.
I suspect the letter is as much a product of mood and health than of rational assessment, but let's be clear: anyone who can dash off a line like "I begin to grow old; I have given my top note, I fancy; -- and I have written too many books" is far from finished.

Friday, January 25, 2013

From the desk of Donald E. Westlake. Or maybe Richard Stark? Or Samuel Holt? Or Tucker Coe? Or . . . ?

We'll keep the writers' letters theme rolling along today--though today's entry is our first look at the future of collections of writers' letters: it's from an e-mail. It comes to us courtesy of Ethan Iverson, jazz pianist and expert on the writing of Donald Westlake, an e-mail that Westlake sent to Iverson sometime around 2005:
I’ve always loved Point Blank sort of the way the Neanderthal mother loved that first hairless mutant: did that come from me? And I never get over being astonished at how far that original toss has sailed. In addition to the lowly origins you mentioned, there's also the fact that it was supposed to be a one-off, that I had Parker arrested by the cops at the end of The Hunter, which is part of why I didn't bother to give him a first name. A Pocket Books editor named Bucklin Moon (honest: discovered Chester Himes) asked me if I could somehow arrange Parker's escape and bring him back. It's all careful planning, all careful planning.
There's more of their e-mail exchanges at Iverson's blog, where he offers an indispensable annotated guide to nearly all of Westlake's books.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter already know why I picked Westlake for today: tonight is the nationwide premiere of Parker, an adaptation of the novel Flashfire that stars Jason Statham as Parker, the first time that Parker's name has actually been used for the character onscreen. I'm not seventeen, so I'm not seeing the movie tonight, but I'm looking forward to seeing it soon, and I've definitely been enjoying the flurry of attention that it's brought to the series as a whole.

In addition to Michael Weinreb's excellent essay on Westlake for Grantland (The Outfit "doesn't so much begin as get straight to the goddamned point."), there's Nick Pinkerton's look at Parker's checkered cinematic history for the Village Voice (File under Things I Did Not Know: "Jim Jarmusch . . . can be seen reading a Stark novel on an airplane in 1994's pseudo-documentary Tigrero."), and A. O. Scott's appreciative review of the film in the New York Times.

As Parker's main publisher, my colleagues and I have been doing our part, too. I wrote a post for the Press blog about the books and movie, including five tips for keeping yourself from being robbed by Parker. (And let's be clear: if you'd told fourteen-year-old me that I would get paid to write about crime novels, and later that day get to trade e-mails with Lawrence Block, I would have been pretty damn impressed with future me.) But the big news we got to share this week was that we'd launched a new Parker website that features infographics of Parker's take from each heist (and the bodies he left behind), Parker's rules to live (heist) by, and, biggest and best, a complete, sortable guide to all 498 characters to cross Parker's path in the twenty-four novels. I've been kicking around the idea of doing a Parker character guide since we first started publishing the books, and with the help of my incredibly hard-working colleagues--as attentive to detail as Parker himself--we've made it happen.

So pick up your copy of The Hunter and settle in for the weekend, folks. Oh, but don't forget to lock your doors first. You never know who might be casing the place.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Many's the time when, foully abused of a sudden by a cannonade of knife-bitter wind, my only recourse has been to laugh. Maniacally.

Today's dip into the writers' mailbag returns some sentiments suitable for the cold, cold day here in Chicago. It comes from the pen of Saul Bellow, writing to University of Chicago professor Edward Shils on September 15, 1966:
The most agreeable thing about Chicago is that one doesn’t run into many writers, critical razboiniks and gangsters of the pen. But then Chicago is also in a state of extraordinary winter nullity, and we haven’t seen many people. Winter nights are long. I have an electric blanket and read War and Peace.
I'm not having much luck with a quick attempt to learn what razboiniks are: Google tells me it's Romanian, and that, spelled "raboiznics," it might mean "warrior."

Regardless, War and Peace could be a good answer to our bleak midwinter--but I've read it too recently, and, frankly, it's too dour for my mood today. (Anna Karenina, on the other hand. . . . Oh, the sudden appearance of the train at the end sours things, but by that point you've had hundreds of pages in which to enjoy Stepan Arkadyevich and his feckless nonsense!)

Instead, it's Tristram Shandy for me, re-read the first time in eighteen years. What better choice to alleviate winter's gloom? "I am now fabricating for the laughing part of the world," wrote Laurence Sterne in a letter in 1762, "--for the melancholy part of it, I have nothing but my prayers--so God help them." Amen.

Monday, January 21, 2013

There ain't no party like a Penelope Fitzgerald party!

January's trawl through writers' letters continues, and today the aim is to inspire you, in this drear midwinter, to seek out laughter and nonsense and company worth leaving the warm house for. Penelope Fitzgerald writes to her friend Hugh Lee on November 13, 1940:
I hear Oxford is violently gay and in general suggests those bits in comedy films where you see champagne glasses superimposed on merry-go-rounds to suggest dissipation, so when I come up I do hope you will be able to show me some of it.
Dissipation awaits--you just have to bundle up and seek it out!

Friday, January 18, 2013

William Maxwell on interruptions

Today finds me with even less time than the preceding few weeks--which makes the selection an easy one. From a letter sent by William Maxwell to Eudora Welty on October 19, 1953:
I started to get some writing done, but there was an interruption. Blessed are the interrupted, for they shall etcetera.
We now return you to whatever it is you're failing to get done.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Chekhov tells you how to live

A letters fest like the one I'm hosting here this month wouldn't be complete without something from the wonderfully humane letters of Chekhov. My favorite, I think, is one he sent in 1886 to his brother Nikolay, who was more or less a neer-do-well:
You see life has its conditions. In order to feel comfortable among educated people, to be at home and happy with them, one must be cultured to a certain extent. Talent has brought you into such a circle, you belong to it, but . . . you are drawn away from it and you vacillate between cultured people and the lodgers vis a vis.

Cultured people must, in my opinion, satisfy the following conditions:

1. They respect human personality, and therefore they are always kind, gentle, polite, and ready to give in to others. They do not make a row because of a hammer or a lost piece of india-rubber; if they live with anyone they do not regard it as a favour and, going away, they do not say “nobody can live with you.” They forgive noise and cold and dried-up meat and witticisms and the presence of strangers in their homes.

2. They have sympathy not for beggars and cats alone. Their heart aches for what the eye does not see…. They sit up at night in order to help P. . . , to pay for brothers at the University, and to buy clothes for their mother.

3. They respect the property of others, and therefor pay their debts.

4. They are sincere, and dread lying like fire. They don’t lie even in small things. A lie is insulting to the listener and puts him in a lower position in the eyes of the speaker. They do not pose, they behave in the street as they do at home, they do not show off before their humbler comrades. They are not given to babbling and forcing their uninvited confidences on others. Out of respect for other people’s ears they more often keep silent than talk.

5. They do not disparage themselves to rouse compassion. They do not play on the strings of other people’s hearts so that they may sigh and make much of them. They do not say “I am misunderstood,” or “I have become second-rate,” because all this is striving after cheap effect, is vulgar, stale, false.

6. They have no shallow vanity. They do not care for such false diamonds as knowing celebrities, shaking hands with the drunken P., listening to the raptures of a stray spectator in a picture show, being renowned in the taverns. . . . If they do a pennyworth they do not strut about as though they had done a hundred roubles’ worth, and do not brag of having the entry where others are not admitted. . . . The truly talented always keep in obscurity among the crowd, as far as possible from advertisement. Even Krylov has said that an empty barrel echoes more loudly than a full one.

7. If they have a talent they respect it. They sacrifice to it rest, women, wine, vanity. . . . They are proud of their talent. Besides, they are fastidious.

8. They develop the aesthetic feeling in themselves. They cannot go to sleep in their clothes, see cracks full of bugs on the walls, breathe bad air, walk on a floor that has been spat upon, cook their meals over an oil stove. They seek as far as possible to restrain and ennoble the sexual instinct. What they want in a woman is not a bed-fellow … They do not ask for the cleverness which shows itself in continual lying. They want especially, if they are artists, freshness, elegance, humanity, the capacity for motherhood. They do not swill vodka at all hours of the day and night, do not sniff at cupboards, for they are not pigs and know they are not. They drink only when they are free, on occasion. For they want mens sana in corpore sano.

And so on. This is what cultured people are like. In order to be cultured and not to stand below the level of your surroundings it is not enough to have read “The Pickwick Papers” and learnt a monologue from “Faust.” . . .

What is needed is constant work, day and night, constant reading, study, will. . . . Every hour is precious for it…. Come to us, smash the vodka bottle, lie down and read. . . . Turgenev, if you like, whom you have not read.

You must drop your vanity, you are not a child … you will soon be thirty. It is time!

I expect you…. We all expect you.
The recipient of such a letter must surely have felt well harangued--but also loved, no? "They do not have sympathy for beggars and cats alone"--oh, how easy it is to love Chekhov!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Sir Walter Scott on his bookshelves

January's letters party continues, this time with lines sent by Sir Walter Scott to Lady Louisa Stuart on February 21, 1825:
Dread, my dear Lady Louisa, that in preferring some comely quarto to a shabby duodecimo, your Ladyship may be rejecting the editio princeps. Consider that in banishing some antiquated piece of polissonnerie you may destroy the very work for which the author lost his ears two centuries since, and which has become almost priceless. Then there are so many reasons for not parting with duplicates, for they may have a value in being tall, or a value in being short, or perhaps in having the leaves uncut, or some peculiar and interesting misprint in a particular passage, that there is no end to the risque of selection. So much for Bibliomania. But besides the whims of the book-collectors, there are real and serious reasons why books should not be discarded but with the utmost caution. Many useless in themselves are curious as marking manners. Many neglected and run down when they appeared and ill spoken of by contemporary critics, contain much nevertheless that is worthy of notice and preservation. These fall asleep like the chrysalis, and awaken to glitter in the sun of popularity like the butterfly. I firmly believe I could bring myself to send nothing to the bookstalls excepting school books and ordinary editions of English Classics, and that should be done with great caution.
Two quick thoughts:

1. Why have I never opened a letter with "Dread"? Must remedy that. (Though preferably with an exclamation point: "Dread!"

2. Scott could take such a position on keeping every book that crossed his threshold, because oh, what a threshold!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Gibbon on laziness

Today's entry in the January letters series comes from Edward Gibbon, who writes of his laziness in this letter to his stepmother of February 17, 1764:
My laziness as to writing is but too natural to me; but no place is so apt to encourage it as this, where my way of life is so agreeable but at the same time so uniform, that a month or two are elapsed before I know any thing of the matter. Pleasant weather, (I am forced to draw the curtain this moment to exclude the sun) study in the morning, and company in the afternoon. Books you are not perhaps acquainted with, and people that I am sure you do not know, make up my occupations, and notwithstanding all the pleasure I hope for in Italy, I own I shall quit this place with some unwillingness.
Three quick thoughts:

1. I wish he'd capitalized "laziness" in "My Laziness." It would have given it much more heft.

2. If the man who wrote a couple of thousand pages on the Roman Empire is lazy, what maketh that the rest of us?

3. That reminds me of my favorite of Aesop's fables. A lioness was being chided for having had only one child, to which she replied, "Yes, but a lion."

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

The Life and Opinions of Barbara Pym, Gentlewoman

It's no secret that I'm a fan of Barbara Pym. I think she's a wonderfully perceptive and comic writer, displaying an amazing economy in her sentences, characterizations, plots, and choice of settings and subjects. So this passage, from her diary (I'm stretching January's theme of letters to include it) entry of April 11, 1943, has brought me much amusement--as the book she's referring to is Tristram Shandy:
It seems a nice inconsequential sort of book--the sort of book one would like to have written--or might even one day write.
The mind boggles? What on earth would Tristram Shandy be like written by Barbara Pym? A hell of a lot shorter, that's for sure.

Monday, January 07, 2013

The shelves are bare

I've written before about the frustration of having one's books packed up rather than shelved close at hand, and for today's entry in January's letters series, I'll quote Robert Lowell on the subject, from a letter he sent to Elizabeth Bishop on September 11, 1975:
It must [be] a freedom [to] have your books out and on the wall. When I moved from Boston to New York, there were no bookcases for two months, and the books stood in their boxes ten feet high, like some backward child's pyramid. I couldn't even despair.
Given Bishop's capability for despair, I'm not sure I'd have phrased it that way, but the feeling is nonetheless familiar.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Mark #&@*# Twain

The next few weeks, I fear, will see but spotty blogging, as work and travel trouble my schedule. So as not to risk throwing you entirely on your own resources amid the blasts of the bleak midwinter, I'll put up at least a few posts here and there quoting from writers' letters. For more than a year now, I've been including a quote from a writer's letter at the start of the weekly publicity roundup I send out at the office, so I've got a good backlog of fun quotes to draw from.

So let's begin, with a postscript to a letter that Mark Twain sent to his brother on December 29, 1888. The letter was a tad intemperate, berating the brother for running through money like water and not following Twain's advice:
P. S. Don’t imagine that I have lost my temper, because I swear. I swear all the time, but I do not lose my temper. And don’t imagine that I am on my way to the poorhouse, because I am not; or that I am uneasy, for I am not; or that I am uncomfortable or unhappy—for I never am. I don’t know what it is to be unhappy or uneasy, and I am not going to learn how, at this late date.
The letter, let us be clear, was absolutely brimful of swears.