Thursday, October 28, 2010

Blount Words

Speaking of the literary life . . . I don't know what prompted Editor Charlie to finally send me this photo he took of author Roy Blount Jr. and me at the Miami Book Fair last November, but I'm very glad he did.

As I blogged at the time, I was honored to be invited to speak/read at the Fair with graphic novelist Neil Kleid. I liked Neil a lot and think our session went well. I met Mr. Blount--a terrific prose stylist with a distinguished writing career--at the end of my long first day: fuzzy-headed from a cross-country flight, hungry from missing lunch and dinner, whisked off to a boozy author's reception without a chance to change (which explains my casual attire). By the end of the evening I'd lost my voice, which was probably a blessing because I doubt I was making much sense anyway. This photo was shot around midnight as a group of us waited on a balmy Miami street corner for a chartered bus that took forever to arrive.

I'm a fan of Mr. Blount's but, as I also blogged at the time, I am probably the worst sort of fan he could have: I've read a lot of his work and loved it, but I could not for the life of me think of a single specific piece of his to talk about. "Remember that one thing you did that one time? That was great." I may not have used those exact words but that how stupid I sounded in my head. He was nevertheless gracious and charming, and remembered me kindly the next day when I happened to run into him at the Book Fair. Having a chance to chat with him was a definite "not in Kansas anymore" moment for me and a highlight of the trip.

I have no larger point to make. I was just surprised to find this picture in my e-mail folder today and wanted to share a happy memory. Thanks, Charlie!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bookish Pursuits

Here's a great interview with my friend Sarah Leavitt, author of the new graphic memoir Tangles, and I'm not just recommending it because she says something nice about me (but thanks for that!). I mentioned Sarah a few posts ago: her comic is about her mother's ordeal with Alzheimer's Disease, and was just shortlisted for Canada's Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Award. Read the interview, buy the book. It's just that simple.

* * *

My high-school friend Teri tagged me with one of those Facebook things that asks you to name 15 authors off the top of your head who "influenced you and will always stick with you." Rather than perpetuate the chain-letter approach, I thought I'd do it here. With minimal reflection, the first 15 who come to mind:

Bill Shakespeare
Mark Twain
Goethe (Faust has haunted me for decades)
Carl Sagan (his Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark is my manifesto)
E.B. White (great prose stylist whose voice rubbed off on mine long ago)
Dr. Seuss (hey, the question says "influential," it doesn't specify when)
James Boswell (I re-read his London Journal every few years)
Robert Heinlein (I'm not much into science fiction now, but there was a time . . .)
JRR Tolkien (ditto)
Charles Dickens
Jack London (Martin Eden is an overlooked gem)
The writers and editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica (which as a boy I often sat and read, to the derision of my peers)
Walt Kelly/Charles Schulz/Winsor McCay
Gene Roddenberry
Stan Lee

I can feel your eyebrows rise at those last two. I won't argue that Roddenberry and Lee were great writers, only that I found them tremendously influential. For better or worse, "Star Trek" and Marvel Comics made me who I am today. As for Kelly/Schulz/McCay, I put them together like that because I think those three contributed roughly equally to my understanding of what cartooning is and can be.

It doesn't escape my notice that my list is a bunch of dead (except for Stan Lee) white guys. I've read and enjoyed works by non-dead-white-guys*, I just wouldn't put them in my Top 15. Sadly, the list of books and authors I know I need to get around to someday just keeps getting longer. I also expect to wake up in the middle of the night with three names I should have included but forgot. Shrug. To quote a respected naval philosopher, I yam what I yam.

(*Not the same as undead white guys. Those would be zombies. Which generally write poorly.)

* * *

I've resolved to read more fiction and am revving up to start Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. Is that a good idea or a mistake?

* * *

The last great book I read was Walter Isaacson's bio of Ben Franklin. The last book of any sort I read was Agnes Quill: An Anthology of Mystery, written by Dave Roman and illustrated by many, including Dave himself. Agnes is a teenage detective who talks to the dead. It's a very appealing mix of fantasy, mystery, horror and humor. Dave's a sort-of friend (by which I mean I think he's swell but don't claim to know him well) and Agnes Quill is first-rate comics.

* * *

What's the last good book you read? Recommend one in the comments and I'll add it to the top of my "get around to it" pile.

Monday, October 25, 2010

We Happy Few

Jim reminds me that today is St. Crispin's Day, or the feast of the twin saints Crispin and Crispinian. (And as a dad of twins, I assure you that Crispin and Crispinian's parents soon realized what a horrible mistake they'd made with those names. "Crisp!" "Yes, father?" "Not you, the other one!")

In the saints' honor, here's my favorite bit of Shakespeare and one of my top five bits of anything in the English language. If you're not familiar with it, you may be surprised how much of it was recycled by other writers later, not least of which the phrase "band of brothers." It's true, Shakespeare invented everything. Just try to enjoy your feast today while holding your manhood cheap.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

I've Been One Poor Correspondent


First thing every morning I check to see how many visitors my blog's received, and on days I don't plan to post it makes me sad. So many nice people who don't know I've already decided to let them down.

But inspiration doesn't always strike and bills must be paid. My October has been consumed by three or four big day-job projects all coming due at the same time, one of which the client dithered on for a year before deciding it needed to be done now. So, to quote Dr. Gillian Taylor in the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: "That, as they say, is that."

Sometime soon, I hope to compose a post on what my sisters "Kid Sis" and "Nurse Sis," about whom I never write, have been up to lately. Short version: It's good. In keeping with my blog's original mission of focusing on the process of writing, drawing and publishing a graphic novel, I'd like to blog about the status of "Mystery Project X," which I hope will be my next book, and the never-before-hinted-at "Mystery Project Y," which I hope might be the book after that. Short version: Don't hold your breath. I've also got half a mind to pull out some old sketches and talk about character design in terms of how I approach it and what I might have done differently if I'd been a bit smarter. Short version: Cap Crater is a pain in the neck.

We'll see if any of that happens. You'll have to come back to find out.

See what I did there?

Before I proceed to post some videos I've enjoyed lately, remember that drawing I did at the Charles Schulz Museum's "Cartoonists Sketch-a-Thon" commemorating the 60th anniversary of Peanuts? All the participants were asked to do one for the museum's collection, which I assumed meant that it would be archived in a spooky warehouse next to the Lost Ark. Well, it turns out that mine and a couple of others will actually be put on display next month.

My stuff sharing wall space with Mr. Schulz's stuff. Yeah, that'll take a while to sink in.

Video #1: A radio essay on language, grammar and pedantry by Stephen Fry, courtesy of my friend Jim O'Kane. I heartily, happily agree with 92% of Fry's delightfully expressed opinion. I part with him when he argues that careful, proper use of language doesn't "illustrate clarity of thought and intelligence of mind." I think it does. In my own writing, I find that choosing just the right words, and organizing them precisely to convey exactly the meaning I intend, often does clarify (even for me) what I'm trying to say. Sometimes I change my own mind--if a sentence's grammar won't hang together, sometimes it's because the thought it's trying to express is flawed. Conversely, I often find that people who don't speak or write clearly aren't thinking very clearly, either. On the scale of grammatical philosophy, Fry's a half-inch nearer "descriptivist" and further from "prescriptivist" than I am. Still: if what I just wrote sounds halfway interesting, this is worth your time.

Video #2: This is almost surely not worth your time, but I enjoyed it anyway: How the first Superman movie (with Chris Reeve and Gene Hackman) should have ended. Hard to argue. Found on Mark Evanier's blog.

Video #3: What happens when you mix hot postassium chlorate and a Gummi Bear? I worked in chemistry labs for more than a decade and never did anything this cool. Makes me feel kind of bad for the bear, though; it's almost as though you can hear his screams. From Bad Astronomer Phil Plait.

Later, I promise.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dad of the Year Steals My Idea

Well, I guess it's time to turn in my "Father of the Year" plaque and "#1 Dad" t-shirt. This guy totally schools me.*

Just a couple of quibbles: 100,000 feet isn't really "space," which starts about three times as high as these boys' balloon got. Also, the Earth's curvature isn't so apparent at that altitude, the roundness is just a distortion from their camera's fish-eye lens. But still . . . totally cool!

Seriously, I used to think about doing projects exactly like this all the time. I mean, when I was around 8 years old I actually drew up plans! Of course back then there weren't any tiny video cameras, mobile phones or GPS devices. My scheme involved a Kodak Instamatic and a really long string to simultaneously click the shutter, release the balloons and deploy the parachute. Still: same principle.

This dad's boys will remember this experience the rest of their lives. Engineering in action, potential scientists in the making. Sorry I let you down, girls. Anybody want to lend me an iPhone? It's not too late.
* "Totally schools me" is how the hep cats would say that, right? I don't want to get dissed in my own blog. Chillax, dawgs.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Tapas du Jour

Little bite-sized bits to tide us over for the weekend . . .
* * *
"Why I Feel Old" #355: I was alive when they made this.

Yeah, I watched all those shows. How odd to see a Corvette tearing down the main drag of old Virginia City. I find Endora's flirtation with Hoss unsettling, but my opinion of Elizabeth Montgomery's extraordinary beauty is stronger than ever. Sadly, 1965 was a year too soon for Captain Kirk to spin doughnuts around the Enterprise's bridge in a Corvair.

(Hat tip to Jim O'Kane.)
* * *

Deep-thinking cartoonist Darryl Cunningham posted on Facebook: "What if the Chilean miners came out to find the world empty of people? I think we should all hide to freak them out." I like the way Darryl thinks. Read the comics on his blog and look for his book Psychiatric Tales, already out in the U.K. and coming to the U.S. soon.

* * *

More bragging on friends' books: my once-a-year pal Raina Telgemeier's just received a Boston Globe Horn Book Honor Award for her graphic novel Smile. The Horn Book Award is one of the more respectable honors that a book for children or young adults can win, and goes to the year's best in nonfiction, picture books, and fiction/poetry. I want to be careful to describe this right: Smile was named one of two nonfiction Honor Books, which isn't the big award but a still-prestigious honorable mention. It's well-deserved recognition for a fine book, and I'm very happy for Raina. It's nice when good things happen to good people.

* * *

Finally, also from Jim O'Kane, whose tastes in entertainment and spacecraft seem to mirror my own, this may be worth four minutes of your time:

To be clear, the puppeteer says in his video's comments that this is performance art. He's not really homeless, just trying to call attention to their plight . . . their pressure, if you will. Still, I found it fun, especially as it picks up about two minutes in. If I saw this in person I'd give him a buck, which is the highest praise I can offer a busker.

Have a good weekend, y'all.


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Other Welcome News

I'm very happy to learn that a friend's newly released book is earning some nice recognition. Sarah Leavitt is a Vancouver cartoonist whose book Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer's, My Mother and Me, was just named a finalist for the prestigious Writers' Trust of Canada Non-Fiction Prize--the first graphic novel finalist in the award's history. Sarah gets $2500 for making the short list and, if she wins (to be announced Nov. 2), would receive $25,000.

Sarah and I began corresponding because I guess she thought the Mom's Cancer guy might have some idea what to do with a comic about losing her mother to Alzheimer's disease. I liked her work a lot, offered some advice when asked, and, after she found a publisher, was glad to provide a blurb for her book's back cover (my first!). Now she's doing readings and signings, conducting interviews, and living the literary life. If this Writers' Trust recognition is any indication, Sarah may be yet another writer I've advised at the start who goes on to rocket past me. I love it when that happens.

Congratulations, Sarah!.

Wellcome News

The Wellcome Trust is an enormous UK-based philanthropic organization with a focus on biomedical research and improving the public understanding of science. It was also a major sponsor of the first-of-its-kind Graphic Medicine conference I keynoted (is that a verb?) in London last June, and they've got a blog and a magazine for which Mun-Keat Looi, whom I met at the event, has written a nice little feature about it.

From my self-centered perspective, the coolest thing about the article is the honor of being caricatured by the conference's organizer and my host, Dr. Ian Williams (aka cartoonist Thom Ferrier). I don't think a cartoonist has ever drawn me before; it's a bit like listening to a recording of your own voice. It's clearly me, yet I didn't know I looked like that.

Without speaking out of turn or prematurely, I can say that plans for a follow-up conference on Comics and Medicine are in the works. I thought the first was very interesting, productive and worthwhile, and look forward to bigger and better ones to come.

Thanks, Ian!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Five Years On

Five years ago today, Mom died. Five years. So much time, so little.

I've sometimes written, and often thought, that I wish Mom were here to see how the story she let me tell in Mom's Cancer has circled around the world and still comes round to revisit in surprising ways. How it's being read in German, Italian and French. Today, what surprises me most is its staying power. Most books fade away after a year or two, and Mom's Cancer certainly has to some extent. But in the past year it's also been written up in the British Medical Journal and gotten me invited to speak to an international conference in London. Last Mother's Day, the Huffington Post listed it as one of their seven favorite mother-themed books, and in January the Onion's A.V. Club named it one of "25 Great Songs, Books, Films, Albums, and TV Shows in Which Cancer Plays a Major Role." Just last week, a German newspaper highlighted it in a big article. Independent of Mom, independent of me, the book lives.

That sounds like bragging, and it is, but it's bragging on Mom. Mom's Cancer is her story and legacy; I was just the messenger. Each of those accomplishments was one I wished she were here to share, along with the other life achievements of her children and grandchildren. She'd love to see what everyone is up to, and I know she'd be pleased.

My sister Brenda ("Nurse Sis") posted the following on Facebook this morning that I thought was good enough to steal: "The minute my Mom was told she MIGHT be ill she quit smoking that day... cold turkey. Done. I'm giving you permission to quit smoking BEFORE you get Stage IV Lung Cancer with Mets to the Brain. My gift to you on the 5th Anniversary of my Mom's death. Mom would want you to have THAT gift!"

I'll just add that Mom was always a stubborn smoker who reflexively fought any pleas to stop, arguing that she wasn't hurting anyone but herself. The one truth she realized too late that I'd like to pass on is that dying of lung cancer doesn't just hurt you; it hurts everyone around you that you love. Apply her hard-won wisdom.