Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Acknowledging a Debt to the Fisher King

Photos copyright Columbia Pictures
Photos copyright 1991 Columbia Picture Corporation

Stories are made of so many bits and pieces from a person's consciousness, some of them conscious and some of them so unconscious that their influence leeches subtly and powerfully through your mind. Upon the regrettable passing of the comic actor Robin Williams, I find myself reflecting on the movie he starred in which most impacted my life, The Fisher King, and discovering links between Terry Gilliam's masterpiece and my own first noveThe Shadow of the Bear. It might make an interesting study to compare the film with my book, because I'm sure the debt is evident in many ways that even I am not aware of. 

(Side note to parents: this film contains strong language, crass language, adult situations, adult humor, and distressing scenes of violence. It is a good representative of what I would call a film for adults (as opposed to that hated euphenism "adult film," which really means a film for immature adults). The Fisher King is definitely not for children or young teens. But it is a good film for angst-filled young adults.)

The year was 1991. That year, I was a college student, a senior majoring in television production, and battling the most serious depression of my life. My survival tactic was to throw myself into my classwork, which as an upperclassman consisted of hours in the artificial light of the university's basement television studio, immersed in rearranging frames of video. I pressed out endless assignment papers, attended production meetings, and theatrical rehearsals, and did whatever else I could distract myself with, to hide the abyss gnawing at my psyche. The worst hour of the day was when the alarm clock went off, and I had to will myself to get out of the dorm bunkbed and face another empty day. 

It wasn't surprising that my thoughts were bleak, subsumed in a morass of misery. Grunge was in, and it fit my mood. I was drawn to topics that dealt with despair, because I desperately needed a reason to keep on living. Into the midst of this, I went to see The Fisher King with my fellow TV majors, and was completely transfixed. So much so, that I went back to see it again the same week, significant for this broke college student. 

The inciting incident in the story used two cross-currents in American culture. Howard Stern was making his fame as a shock jock, and American crime had entered that blurry period where mass murders by unhappy individuals had become a phenomenon but before Columbine took it to the level of psychopathic fame. What could be causing this senseless violence? Was American culture itself responsible, perhaps even the makers of that culture? The Fisher King tapped that raw nerve of guilt as Jack Lucas, a shock jock played by Jeff Bridges, makes a glib comment to a mentally-unstable regular caller, and the man goes on a shooting spree in a New York City restaurant.

A despairing Jack attempts to commit suicide under a NYC bridge by tying cement blocks to his feet. But in a dark Chestertonian twist, he discovers a sudden desire to live when two young thugs take him for a homeless person and decide to set him on fire. But before they can murder him, Jack is saved by another madman, a Quixotic homeless man named Parry (Robin Williams) and his band of crazy knights. Parry sees himself as a modern-day knight on a crusade to find the Holy Grail, which he believes is hidden in the hi-rise apartment of a New York millionaire. "The Fisher King" of the title recalls a medieval legend bound up with the knights of King Arthur and the Holy Grail they sought.

According to IMDB,
The legend varies, but all iterations possess three elements: the Fisher King was charged by God with guarding the Holy Grail, but later incurred some form of incapacitating physical punishment for his sin of pride, and had to wait for someone to deliver him from his suffering. A simpleminded knight named Percival, referred to in the movie as "The Fool", healed the wounds with kindness to the king, asking him why he suffers and giving him a cup of water to drink. The king realizes the cup is the grail and is baffled that the boy found it, as demonstrated in the closing exchange: "I've sent my brightest and bravest men to search for this. How did you find it?" The Fool laughed and said "I don't know. I only knew that you were thirsty." Echoes of the legend recur throughout the film, but in a continually shifting manner, so that it sometimes appears that Lucas is Percival to Parry's Fisher King, sometimes vice versa, and sometimes that one or the other is re-enacting part of the story with another character (most obviously in Parry's self-assigned quest to obtain the Grail from the man he believes is its guardian). (from the movie's  spoiler synopsis)

I was fascinated by this dark film with its cast of misbegotten characters, ranging from Jack's city Italian girlfriend who runs a trashy video store to an emaciated transvestite singer, from the wheelchair-bound veteran Jack befriends to Parry's maiden love, a gawky lonely spinster named Lydia. But under the influence of Parry's mad and joyful vision, they become transfigured into something greater than themselves, enacting a story that brings healing and the restoration of sanity, albeit with a typical 90s tinge.

Beneath the grit and William's characteristic potty-mouthed humor, I remember the movie as a series of haunting vignettes. The famous scene in Grand Central Station where the bustling crowd of commuters transforms into a ballroom of waltzing couples, as Parry's lonesome love, Lydia walks home from work. Jeff Bridges scaling the skyscraper in homemade armor. The chorus of madmen in the asylum celebrating Jack's triumphant quest.

Copyright Columbia Pictures

And I love the first date scene, where Parry walks Lydia home, and she expresses her fears to him: that his infatuation is just leading to a one-night stand. Parry, clad in a white suit reminiscent of a white knight's, responds to her with a pledge of steadfast purity that is remarkable in William's career. Terry Gilliam is best known for his cynical Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but for a character in his film to give such a defense of chaste love is remarkable, and to me, unforgettable.

Photo copyright Columbia Pictures

“Have you ever felt that there was something going on in life that not everyone was aware of? ...As though there's a story going on that everyone is a part of, but not everybody knows about? Maybe 'story' isn't the right word- a sort of drama, a battle between what's peripheral and whats really important. As though the people you meet aren't just their plain, prosaic selves but are actually princes and princesses, gods and goddesses, fairies, shepherds, all sorts of fantastic creatures who've chosen to hide their real shapes for some reason or another. Have you ever thought that?” my heroine, Rose, asks another homeless man, Bear, in The Shadow of the Bear . Like Parry, she envisions a life where people's actions mean something, where people's identity reflects a deeper reality. She doesn't know that (like Parry), Bear has taken up the gauntlet in a modern-day quest which some people would consider mad.

And I find this other quote also reflects themes found in the Fisher King, when Bear tells Blanche, “Every once in a while you just have to decide to do something very crazy and very right--just to dare yourself to live. I don't mean doing something stupid and destructive--just something fun and good and beautiful.” I even find echos of Bear and Blanche's dance to "Paper Moon" in Fisher King's emblematic refrain: "I like New York in June: How about you?" Somehow I felt my New York teen heroes just had to dance to big band somewhere in my story.

Photo copyright Columbia Pictures

Madness and sanity is a large theme in The Fisher King. Most of the conversations about madness don't appear in my book, but they are touched on in the audio drama we later made, which features more conversations between the brothers Bear and Fish, who wonder at times if they are mad to keep on living in poverty in order to continue to track a murderer the police have long ago given up on finding. The transformation of Jack from a cynical angry man to a laughing knight on a mad mission probably impacted me the most. I am sure that the character of Fish owes something to Jeff's Bridges' Jack, but it takes two more books for Fish to set out on his own mad quest and win a sword.

In conquering depression, victory is won not by a few large victories, but through many small ones. Small acts of getting out of bed, choosing to smile instead of to zone, starting a chat with a stranger in need instead of sitting alone. Jack's road out of depression back to sanity is also filled with many little choices: steps forward and steps back. But since this is Hollywood, we do get to see a few of the grand moments caught on film too. 

Photo copyright Columbia Pictures

So during my own dark night of the soul, The Fisher King came like a spark of hope that even in a grim, profane, and savagely violent world, medieval-style quests and even triumps were still possible. Love and sanity are precious things, frightfully assailed on all sides, but able to conquer. We need miracles, even the miracle of a good story. Two years later, I was living in New York, putting the finishing touches on the manuscript that would be my first published book, and about to meet the man who would become the love of my life, my own knight in fading blue denim.

Photo copyright Columbia Pictures

Rest in peace, Robin Williams, wounded knight. I pray you find your Holy Grail.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Finally Saw Frozen and I Confess Myself Disappointed

Silly me, I was expecting a Pixar-level plot or at least something as good as TANGLED. I also kind of felt the bitter disappointment I felt when watching The Little Mermaid as a teen, seeing that the Hans Christian Andersen plot was barely homaged, more kind of exploited. But the Disney Mermaid has far more in common with Andersen than Frozen does. 

Here’s what I was most disappointed in (spoiler alert):

1) Because the climax wasn't adequately set up, it felt more like a bait-and-switch: it wasn't clear that ELSA had a frozen heart for Anna to sacrifice heserlf to melt, and that in this world, one can sacrifice oneself in order to bring ONESELF back to life. It would have worked better if Elsa had sacrificed herself for Anna, but the current climax just felt too much like rule-breaking. Better setup would have fixed that. Basically, it's a plot patched together and greenlighted because it was considered good enough for a marketing vehicle for kids (hey! Now Disney gets to sell TWO MORE Disney Princesses! Double profits!), but not for intelligent adults. Since the Pixar/Disney merger, it's been a while since I've had my children's intelligence insulted by a Disney film, but then again, I haven't been paying complete attention.

2) The song "Let it Go" (with beautiful lyrics and presentation) hogged the emotional weight of the plot, and nothing else came close to matching it in power and artistry. This is a problem, because even by the plot's own rules, the song is a negative song sung by the antagonist, and "letting it go" is NOT a good thing, but the thing that triggers the destruction of her home world. If Anna had matched that song with an equally powerful one of her own, it would have worked, but the same kind of half-done story work that botched the climax was at work lyrically, making this movie the equivalent of a Phantom of the Opera that included "Music of the Night" but not "All I Ask of You."  In Phantom, it's the second song that responds to and completes the first, making the play a masterpiece, but Frozen (all too typically) got the bad guy spot on, and left the perky heroine floundering metaphyiscally and plotwise. Writers, be aware that a powerful song is a force unto itself that can unbalance your plot.

3) The much-lauded plot twist regarding Prince Hans: What? A rich heterosexual white male turns out to be the villain of the piece? Now THAT's a trope we've NEVER seen before in a Disney movie! If that's what constitutes a daring and original plot twist, I'm more depressed about the future of Disney than I have been since Beauty and the Beast came out.

4) The Greek-tragedy-like speedy timeframe of the actual story action (everything happens in what? three days?) reduces the connection to the original Snow Queen so much that trying to connect it to Andersen's original is a hopeless exercise, even as a theoretical "true story of what became a myth." So, basically, the legend of the Snow Queen boils down to a girl with a misunderstood talent who for roughly 24 hours "let it go" and made herself an ice palace in the frozen north, but fortunately her heroic sister convinced her to come home and take her rightful place as a queen with a talent for snow entertainment (as opposed to administration, leadership, etc. says the sarcastic feminist in me).  Heroic Gerda and lost Kay have no place in this new mythology.

The original fairy tale featured a strong girl saving a boy, and not just a nice sensitive worthy boy, but a cold-hearted, exploitative, cruel boy: a story that genuinely would have been revolutionary and welcomed by the shortcomings and sorrows of our culture.

It would have been amazing to see a potentially strong character like Disney’s Anna take on Gerda's role saving a boy with the frozen heart of Hans (or even a reworked Kristoff), but that's now a story that we're never going to see on the silver screen with anything like the money and artistry of Frozen.  It's sad to think of the possibilities in the original story that are now going to be lost to a generation of children (probably several generations, if the marketing muscle longevity of Disney’s Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast is any indication). We're going to be surrounded by Made-In-China dollies, Broadway renditions, deep-sounding prattle about  the importance of sisterhood, and theme-park Snowmen in Summer for a long, long, long time. 

And that's about as depressing a Snow Queen Winter as I can imagine.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Any More Fairy Tale Novels? New Answers to Frequent Questions!

Now that Rapunzel Let Down, the sixth Fairy Tale Novel (and the first one we've labeled adult fiction) has been published, I've been asked frequently: so when will the next book be out?

The sad answer is: probably not for a while.  I have less time to write these days than I used to, and for several years now, I have been wanting to start a new series, for adults, based on the Bible. It wouldn't be modern, but set in Biblical times, and I hope to sell it to a mainstream publisher. That means I need to take a break from the Fairy Tale Novels in order to focus on writing these books, if I hope to write them at all. It also means that it could be as long as five years or more before they are available to read.  So yes, it's a long-term project and I realized this past summer that I simply can't do multitask on these new books: I have to focus on them and them alone. So that means farewell to the Fairy Tale Novels for the next few years.

I know this is disappointing news for many people, particularly younger teens who were already disappointed that Rapunzel Let Down turned out to be an adult book. But if anything changes, I will let you know. Who knows, it could all change if I get a really good idea. :)

Below are a few questions I've gotten over and over again the past few months, and I'd like to answer them here so that folks don't have to keep taking the trouble to write.

Will you write a fairy tale on Beauty and the Beast? What about Cinderella?

No, and no. Those are the two fairy tales I've been asked about the most, but I have no plans to rewrite either of these. So sorry.

Please PLEASE write another book about Fish and Rose! Or Bear and Blanche!

I'm sorry, but I have no plans for books featuring the wonderful foursome as main characters that would take place after Waking Rose.  For now, their story is over. I don't have any good ideas for any future books about them, and I think a lame sequel to Waking Rose would be just plain awful. So sorry, but no plans for right now. (Of course, this could always change if I get a really good idea, but nothing's come along so far!)

But wait, I thought you said there would be a book about Fish between Black as Night and Waking Rose based on Rumplestilskin...

Yes, I did, and I do still have plans for such a book, tentatively called "Goldspinner" which would elaborate on Fish's adventures at college and his mysterious relationship with a foreign girl, alluded to at the beginning of Waking Rose. But it would be a pretty dark book (like Rapunzel Let Down) and I'm not anxious to write another dark book just now, so I'm leaving it aside until I feel more inspired.

And what about Paul and Rachel's story? Are they going to get married?  Does Rachel convert? Does....?

Yes, I do have plans for another Paul and Rachel book too, which we've been calling "West of the Moon." But again, I'm kind of stuck on the book right now, and it seems too dark and not fun, certainly not a big climactic book like I'd like to write, so I'm setting that aside too.  I've thought about making a Paul and Rachel trilogy with another adventure in between, but so far, I haven't been inspired. So I'm going to leave it aside for now.  But I hope to come back and write a sequel to Midnight Dancers someday.  Oh, yes, and it would be based on the fairy tale "East of the Sun and West of the Moon."

And what about Alex and Kateri?

So far as I know, their story is done. For now.

But can't you make a book about Leroy?  Or Donna?  Or both of them?

This is an intriguing possibility but so far, no good ideas have come to mind. Thanks to all of you who've sent many suggestions, but so far nothing has gelled.  I've thought of using Donna as a minor character in another stand-alone book based on the Wild Swans, but I haven't really worked on that for a while.

Could you write a book on the Goose Girl? Or Robin Hood?  Or....?

Thanks to all of you who've sent suggestions, but so far, I haven't been inspired. And if you have a really good idea for a modern fairy tale featuring your own characters, go ahead and write it!  I'm not the only person out there writing modern fairy tales, so if you feel the urge, dive on in~!  (But no, you can't use my own characters. Sorry, no fanfiction.)

If I do write a book like that, will you read it and tell me if it's any good?  Or publish it for me?

I have been saying no to everyone who asks me to read manuscripts because I just don't have time. And no, sadly, my little company Chesterton Press, isn't accepting submissions. We just don't have the staff to read them, and what we do is very specialized.  But I wish you the best with your writing!  (And if you're looking to publish Catholic fiction, try Tuscany Press, or join the Catholic Writer's Guild to find more contacts.)

Can you give me some advice on writing? I really want to be an author.

I have tried to compile some of the advice I've given young writers over the years and post them on my website here. Please read this long article with all the questions first, and if you still have a very specific question (ie: NOT "How do I get published?" or something that you could find out about online), feel free to email me.

Could I interview you for a book report or school newsletter?

First read through the questions I've collected here, Google my name to find other interviews I've done, and if you still have questions for me which you can't find the answers to online, yes, then send them to me.  I always like to see writers do their research first. It's good practice. :)

Can I email you just to tell you how much I like the books?

Absolutely. Or comment on this blog! I always love hearing from you all, and I feel sorry that I can't write more books to keep you all satisfied!

So what other books can I read that you recommend if I've read all the Fairy Tale Novels?

A good place to start is my company, Chesterton Press, which specializes in fiction, especially Catholic fiction.  I manage the John Paul 2 High series for teens -- read these first!, help write Catholic Philosopher Chick, and oversee other adult books such as those by John Desjarlais and others. Some of these are for more adult readers, but I try to distribute other books that fit into the category "fun Catholic fiction" such as Zita the Spacegirl, books by MangaHero (whom I still write for), and classics by G.K. Chesterton.

I also recommend two books my daughter really likes, The Locket's Secret by Kara Heyne and the Riddle at the Rodeo by Claudia Cangilla McAdam, both Catholic teen fiction (the cover of the second book makes it look too young but it's a teen book!).

If you're a parent or teacher just looking for good books not necessarily written, edited, or endorsed by me, I always recommend Love2Learn.net, Bethlehem Books, or blogs that specialize in compiling good books for Catholic students.  Sadly, I don't read much fiction, so I'm not the best resource for recommendations, apart from what I distribute. (Obviously I think all the books I distribute or publish are fantastic!) There are folks who specialize in doing just that, though, so ask around online.  And if you have any suggestions for sources for me to recommend to others, send them!

Are you going to make any of the other books into movies or audio dramas, like you did with Shadow of the Bear? Could my friends and I make our own movie?

We did make an audio drama of Shadow (you can buy and download it here) and we did allow some students to make a movie of Shadow of the Bear but we have no plans for further projects like that right now.  It's just time and money. Sadly, we are not giving permission to any other groups to make films of the books, but we hope that someday a professional film company might be interested in buying the rights. (If you are a representative of such a company, email me.)

So that's some answers to the questions I've been hearing over and over again recently. I hope that you all will enjoy the Biblical stories when I eventually finish them, and as always, I want to ask for your prayers. Prayers help me to write faster, among other things, which is always a good thing, and I know they help in any event!  So thank you for reading, for praying for me, and for your constant encouragement!

Peace and good