Entries from August 2009

Julia Child: “The way to a full and healthy life”

I do think the way to a full and healthy life is to adopt the sensible system of “small helpings, no seconds, no snacking, and a little bit of everything.” Above all — have a good time.

— Julia Child

Categories: Odds & Ends    Tags:

Boston’s Wonderful/Terrible City Hall

Boston City Hall

Ask a Bostonian to name the ugliest building in the city, and nine out of ten will say “City Hall.” (The tenth will say something rude to you. If he does neither of these things, he is no Bostonian.) But architects love the building as much as everyone else hates it, and in this case the architects are right: City Hall is a treasure. It is one of the very few truly significant and daring buildings this conservative city has from the entire twentieth century.

What City Hall needs is not tearing down, as the mayor has suggested, but fixing up. It is badly maintained, badly lit, badly furnished. Worst of all, it is surrounded by a barren, windswept, forbidding plaza that is an unqualified disaster.

But reimagine City Hall Plaza as a green space thick with trees and walking paths, a mini Central Park or Arboretum. Or reimagine it as a bustling open market. Reimagine the plaza, basically, as anything other than what it is, so long as it is warm and alive, with City Hall rising up out of it like a stone outcropping of the hillside it’s built on. Not cold and “brutalist” but geometric and permeable and funky — and unabashedly modern. Add shops and cafes to bring people inside, especially in winter. Open the roof as a public space overlooking Faneuil Hall. Imagine City Hall crawling with people like an ant hill or a coral reef or a playground structure! It would be worth any dozen of the forgettable glass boxes or tubes we’ve put up here in the last century.

ArchitectureBoston magazine — itself a little-known treasure of the city — devoted an issue to reimagining City Hall in 2007. Editor Elizabeth Padjen invited me to chip in with a non-architect’s impressions of the building. You can read my piece here (PDF) and the whole issue here [update: link no longer available]. I highly recommend the magazine. The architects’ visions for a renewed City Hall [update: link no linger available] may change your mind about this despised but important building whose failure leaves a hole at the very navel of our city.

(I am in the process of gathering up some of the scattered pieces I’ve written over the years and linking to them here on this blog. That way the good people at the Library of America won’t have to hunt around for my collected works when the time comes. I’ll link to them all using the tag Other Writing.)

Photo credit: “Upsidedown Ziggurat” (licensed under Creative Commons).

Categories: Boston · Design · My Other Writing    Tags:

Philip Roth: “the desire to get the work right”

“I have to have something to do that engages me totally. Without that, life is hell for me. I can’t be idle and I don’t know what to do other than write. If I were afflicted with some illness that left me otherwise okay but stopped me writing, I’d go out of my mind. I don’t really have other interests. My interest is in solving the problems presented by writing a book. That’s what stops my brain spinning like a car wheel in the snow, obsessing about nothing. Some people do crossword puzzles to satisfy their need to keep the mind engaged. For me, the absolutely demanding mental test is the desire to get the work right. The crude cliché is that the writer is solving the problem of his life in his books. Not at all. What he’s doing is taking something that interests him in life and then solving the problem of the book, which is, How do you write about this? The engagement is with the problem that the book raises, not with the problems you borrow from living. Those aren’t solved — they are forgotten in the gigantic problem of finding a way of writing about them.”

Philip Roth

Categories: Writers    Tags: ·

Ten Views of the Combat Zone

Esquire napkin story

Since it looks like this blog is going to be a permanent thing, I’m going to try to gather up some of my other writing here. I don’t do a lot of writing outside my novels, and what I do is mostly for book publicity. But some of it is worth a second look, I hope.

Ten Views of the Combat Zone (Boston, 1976)” is a short short story I wrote in 2007 for Esquire magazine’s “napkin fiction project,” which challenged writers to compose a story so short it could fit, hand-written, on a cocktail napkin. The napkins themselves were as interesting as some of the stories (mine is above).

I’ve been fascinated by the Combat Zone, Boston’s notorious old red-light district, for a long time now. I hope to write a novel about is someday soon. I pitched the idea once to my editor, Kate Miciak, as a follow-up to The Strangler. It seemed natural enough to follow a story of Boston’s 1960s crime scene with one set in the epicenter of the city’s 1970s crimeworld, the Combat Zone. Kate didn’t buy it. But we novelists are stubborn as mules when we think we’re onto something good. I’ll try again.

Categories: Boston · My Other Writing    Tags:

Wallace Stevens: “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm”

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

— Wallace Stevens

Categories: Poetry    Tags: ·

Why authors should (and shouldn’t) blog

I began this blog for a purely mercenary reason: to sell more books. But I discovered to my surprise that I enjoy doing it. Good thing, too, because after three months at it I seriously doubt this blog will ever be an effective sales tool.

Of course, the logic behind author blogs is unimpeachable. The blog attracts new readers as flowers attract bees. These new readers, stupefied by the insights to be found here, return again and again until they decide they simply must have more, at which point they rush out (or more likely click) to buy a book, which they take to be like a blog post only very much longer. Or something like that.

The problem is not that this sort of thing cannot happen. It does. It has happened to me, in fact. The problem is that, as book-selling strategies go, this one is massively inefficient. The number of visitors is just too small to justify the investment of time. More important, counterintuitive as it sounds, most visitors to this blog simply aren’t interested in my books.

In the first few months of my blog’s existence, the overwhelming majority of traffic has come from Google. (I know this because statistics about blog traffic are harvested by several services.) Google referrals tend to be one-time visitors, not regulars. And they come looking for all sorts of things. Here is a small sample of the Google searches that have led people here: “Boston + movies,” “friends of eddie coyle,” “philip roth writing method,” “Graham Greene words per day,” “alphasmart neo.” Do you see a pattern? Me neither. Well, I see one: often as not, these people are not Googling “William Landay.” Of course I’m delighted to have visitors stumble upon my blog this way. That is the whole flowers-and-bees strategy, after all. But there is no reason to expect that these readers will be easy to convert to fans. Most of them have never even heard of me. A few I might be able to sway, but how many and at what cost in time?

Of course, a fraction of my blog traffic does come for the “right” reasons, that is, they enjoy my books or my blog, or both. For them alone, writing this blog would be worthwhile, not because it is going to goose them into reading my books (they already do that), but because core fans want and deserve a place where they can get a better sense of the writer behind the books or even contact him. What’s more, it is valuable to me to have them here. Novel-writing is a grueling, solitary business. The company of these readers — the occasional messages they send or comments they leave, the encouragement — is enormously heartening.

Which leads me to the main point. Even though a blog may never yield a single additional sale, I heartily recommend that all writers launch one anyway. Just remember why you are doing it: because you enjoy it, not because you think it will turn you into a bestseller. Only your books — and a boatload of luck — can do that.

Of course if you are blogging for pleasure rather than to impress potential book-buyers, your blog will look a little different. It will be a truer reflection of yourself, your personality, your quirky tastes. This blog has been a little dry and generic, I think. I have been reluctant to post anything that was not “A” material, longish essays full of deepish thoughts. The result has been a blog with none of the serendipity that characterizes the blogs I enjoy most.

Take Terry Teachout’s blog about theater and the arts, About Last Night. I have been reading ALN for years with great pleasure because I never know what I will find there. It might be a longish essay full of deepish thoughts, but it also might be a YouTube video, a snippet from a book Terry is reading, a notice of an art exhibit. The randomness is what makes it fun.

I am going to tack in that direction myself here. The last few days I have posted a quote, a picture, a video, and a poem, little stuff I would previously have bit.ly’ed and lobbed into the bottomless black hole of Twitter. Look for more of that. Finds like these are what “web logs” originally were: scrapbooks of the interesting nuggets people ran across as they went sniffing around the web. It’s why blogs like Terry Teachout’s work so well, why they keep renewing themselves with a mix of found and original material. This blog should be more fun than it has been, for you and me both.

Categories: Writing    Tags: · · ·

Philip Larkin: “This Is the First Thing”

This is the first thing
I have understood:
Time is the echo of an axe
Within a wood.

— Philip Larkin

Categories: Poetry    Tags: ·

Book Three Update

A quick update on my novel in progress. The first draft is roughly half written, and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Not only has the book been sold in the U.S. and UK, but we have a new and very enthusiastic publisher in Norway, Versal Forlag. I have had lots of overseas sales, but never in Norway. Takk skal du ha, Versal Forlag. The book continues to be shopped overseas and things are looking quite good, even though at this point all we are showing is a hundred manuscript pages and an outline of the rest. There has even been some movie interest. So, all signs are very positive. In this economy, I am especially thankful for that.

With the business side of things taken care of, I am free to concentrate on the book itself. It is foolish for a writer to talk about an unwritten book, so for now I won’t get into the substance of the plot.  Suffice it to say, the manuscript is due on my editor’s desk by April 1, 2010, but I have set a personal deadline of January 1. I have fallen a few weeks behind that schedule, but I am still optimistic I can make up the lost time.

The story, very roughly, is a courtroom drama, with the trial beginning exactly at the midpoint of the book. I think once the trial sequence begins I can write fairly quickly. I am comfortable writing about the courtroom. It is an area I know a little about, having been a prosecutor for several years. The courtroom is also a circumscribed, structured environment. Trials move along in formal, scripted ways, like minuets, with room for just a few dashes of drama and improvisation. No wonder writers are attracted to them. The goal now is to begin that trial sequence September 1. This is how novels are written: not in one leap, but in a series of small, discrete steps. Page by page, scene by scene, one interim deadline after another. The trick is not to look up — you might see how high the mountain above you really is.

Categories: My Books    Tags:

Barbara Mensch’s photographs of New York

Barbara Mensch - New York City

Gorgeous images of New York City by photographer Barbara Mensch. Some background information about Barbara Mensch is here.

Categories: Photography    Tags:

“No battle plan…”

“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (via)

Categories: Odds & Ends    Tags:

Lawrence Lessig on the Google book search settlement

Will Google Books, the audacious attempt to digitize every book ever written, have the perverse effect of making books — and ideas — less available, less ubiquitous, less free? Will copyright laws require that most of the books written in the last century be excluded from the new digital online library? Is this progress? This is Lawrence Lessig speaking at Harvard two weeks ago. Lessig’s presentation runs about 28 minutes followed by a 15-minute Q&A.

Categories: Books · Internet    Tags: · · ·

Remembering Updike the Father

John Updike’s son David, also a writer, has a lovely piece in the Times’ Paper Cuts blog. It is a eulogy for his father which he delivered at a tribute in March at the New York Public Library. I found this passage particularly touching:

But for someone who was getting famous, my father didn’t seem to work overly hard: he was still asleep when we went to school, and was often home already when we got back. When we appeared unannounced, in his office — on the second floor of a building he shared with a dentist, accountants and the Dolphin Restaurant — he always seemed happy and amused to see us, stopped typing to talk and dole out some money for movies. But as soon as we were out the door, we could hear the typing resume, clattering with us down the stairs.

My own sons, now five and eight, perceive me the same way, I think. To kids (and others), a writer at work does not seem to be doing much. They can’t understand that I am hard at it whether I am typing like mad or staring blankly out the window. Maybe this is true of all desk-work. Well, at least I have this one thing in common with Updike.

I admit, I feel a strange, vaguely filial attachment to writers of my father’s generation, especially Roth, Updike and Doctorow, whose books I grew up reading. Anyway, read the whole Updike eulogy. You won’t be sorry.

In the meantime, for all my fellow unmentored writers out there, here is Updike in 2004 with some fatherly advice for young writers.

The rest of the interview is here.

Categories: Writers · Writing    Tags: · · · · ·

Crime novels and entertainments

I was interested to read on Sarah’s blog about the fuss John Banville raised recently. Banville said, undiplomatically, that he writes more quickly and easily as crime writer “Benjamin Black” than he does writing literary novels under his own name. There were hurt feelings, suggestions that Banville was “slumming,” and the author felt compelled to issue a foot-shuffling clarification. “The distinction between good writing and bad,” he said, “is the only one worth making.”

That is so obviously untrue — lots of distinctions beyond good/bad are worth making — that Banville must have held his nose while typing it. The whole thing reminds me of Michael Kinsley’s definition of a Washington gaffe: when a politician inadvertently tells the truth in public.

Does anyone really doubt that an author would find it easier to write freely when he is working in a genre with established conventions? There are plenty of challenges to genre writing, of course. The writer can stick to the conventions, subvert them in various ways, update them, etc. But the rules do exist. The relative difficulty in writing “literary” novels is not that there aren’t models to follow; non-genre writers mimic older stories all the time. The difficulty — at least the one Banville meant — is that storytelling conventions are less clear and less important. The writer is at sea. That is why literary writers like Banville, Richard Price, and E.L. Doctorow (Billy Bathgate) feel relieved when they come to crime writing. Finally, there is a roadmap, a method to plotting the story. As a crime writer, I am thankful for that roadmap every day.

It is also obvious that genre novels place a higher priority on entertaining the reader. This is the umpteenth rehash of Graham Greene’s old distinction between novels and entertainments, and the only remaining mystery is why on earth we continue to worry about it. Listen to Greene (see below) as he briefly discusses the subject. It turns out, the novels/entertainments distinction didn’t hold up very well even for the man who invented it. “Most of my novels have an element of melodrama,” Greene concedes, even the literary ones. All novels need drama, even the melo- kind.

So let’s not be so touchy, crime fans. Entertainments — yes, crime novels included — are indeed easier to write, just as Banville says. They are also generally easier to read, precisely because they take seriously the writer’s duty to entertain. Why apologize for it?

By the way, I always find it a little disconcerting to hear or see an author whose books I love. The authorial voice is one the reader creates in her own head. Greene’s actual, reedy voice is not the one I’d imagined for him. (Click below to hear him.) Yet another example of the internet revealing too much.

Categories: Books · Writers    Tags: · · ·

Kate’s Mystery Books closes (for now)

Kate's Mystery Books

Kate’s Mystery Books on Saturday

Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge closed on Saturday. Kate Mattes held an event with an army of volunteers who helped pack the place up. I stopped by and chatted briefly with Kate, who told me she plans to spend the next year or so getting her enormous inventory properly cataloged online, as well as digitizing two decades worth of book reviews. Then she may look around for a new bricks-and-mortar location if the conditions are right. In the meantime she will continue to hold author events, and her web site is still around.

It goes without saying that the city is a duller place this morning without Kate’s. Of course any number of bookshops have closed the last few years, but this loss feels particularly sad. I never knew the shop especially well, but it seemed like one of those places. It had the patina of years, and a community of readers had sprung up around it. Places like that can’t be replaced or recreated, least of all by a website.

But there’s no use sighing over the blandification of Cambridge, where a funky overstuffed bookstore in an old rambling red Victorian once would have seemed right at home. Or the general extinction of bookstores run by real, live book lovers. Things change. It sucks, but what can you do?

So I will just thank Kate for supporting me from the day my first book arrived and hand-selling my books ever since. I’m sure there is a marching band of writers out there who feel the same way. Thank you, Kate. We’ll see you around.

Kate Mattes and Robert Parker at Kate's Mystery Books, August 1, 2009.

Kate Mattes and Robert Parker at Kate’s Mystery Books, August 1, 2009.


Categories: Books · Boston    Tags: ·

Makers vs. Managers

I’ve written before about the need for writers and other artists to have long stretches of quiet, uninterrupted time to submerge completely in their work. A post is making the rounds today by the programmer and entrepreneur Paul Graham that places the artist’s workstyle in a wider context.

There are two types of schedule, which I’ll call the manager’s schedule and the maker’s schedule. The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour.

When you use time that way, it’s merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you’re done.

Most powerful people are on the manager’s schedule. It’s the schedule of command. But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it. …

I find one meeting can sometimes affect a whole day. A meeting commonly blows at least half a day, by breaking up a morning or afternoon. But in addition there’s sometimes a cascading effect. If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I’m slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning. I know this may sound oversensitive, but if you’re a maker, think of your own case. Don’t your spirits rise at the thought of having an entire day free to work, with no appointments at all? Well, that means your spirits are correspondingly depressed when you don’t. And ambitious projects are by definition close to the limits of your capacity. A small decrease in morale is enough to kill them off.

I quote the piece at length here because Graham gets it exactly right, but you really have to read the whole thing. I read it with a little shiver of recognition.

Of course all writers are both makers and managers at different times. The trick is to keep the two roles separate, to wall off your “maker” times, those long periods during the day when you are trying to create. It does not matter if you retreat to a dedicated workspace like Philip Roth or just a crowded coffee shop, so long as you segregate your creative-work time from ordinary, “managerial” work time. A writer’s workplace is to some extent a state of mind, a “maker” state of mind: isolated, entranced, submerged.

To non-writers, no doubt this all seems a little fussy and precious. That is because most people, not just powerful people, live in the managerial mode, shifting constantly from task to task. I am lucky my family understands that Daddy needs to go off and be alone for long periods to do his work, and they indulge me. My kids don’t know any different. To them, this is all just part of Daddy’s job and his personality. They understand, too, that I am often “distracted and cranky” when I am writing, as Stephen Dubner describes his own maker times. All part of the writing life, I suppose. Still, as a writer it helps to have myself explained to myself, as Paul Graham has done today.

Update: Daniel Drezner, a professor at Fletcher, adds an important thought about the particularly high cost of interruptions in the early stages of a creative project:

I think the problem might even be worse than Graham suggests. Speaking personally, the hardest part of any research project is at the beginning stages. I’m trying to figure out my precise argument, and the ways in which I can prove/falsify it empirically. While I’m sure there are people who can do that part of the job with a snap of their fingers, it takes me friggin’ forever.  And any interruption — not actual meetings, but even responding to e-mail about setting up a meeting — usually derails my train of thought.

The early stages of a novel — or any creative project, I imagine — are equally tentative and fragile.

Categories: Creativity · Productivity · Writing    Tags: ·