brothercyst: October 2009

Thursday, October 29, 2009

INTERVIEW WITH WILLIAM SLEATOR


William Sleator was one of the very few "YA" authors I loved when I was young. Sleator's novels (mostly sci-fi or surrealist high-concept) are slim enough to be devoured in an afternoon, although I customarily started reading them around midnight and stayed up until early morning to finish. They seemed to have something that other YA didn't have; they were stranger, more durable, more intelligent and, sometimes, disturbing. Earlier this year I went back and read a bunch of them out of curiosity, and I realized that they're really ingenious, elegantly constructed novellas. I enjoyed them more as an adult, if anything. Among the best:

Singularity: Twin brothers visit the house of a dead uncle, knowing only that strange things have been happening to the neighbors' cattle for years. It has something to do with a playhouse in the back yard--in which time runs differently. One brother thinks of an ingenious way to use the playhouse against the other. Oh, and things from another world are coming through the sink. This is my favorite Sleator book, and in fact one of my favorite novellas.

Fingers: The brother of a celebrated (but spoiled and infantile) pianist who was once a child prodigy helps his mother orchestrate a scheme to revive his brother's career: They will pretend the brother's channeling a dead composer, producing "new work" by that composer. The narrator composes the work himself and passes it off as his brother's. Then the narrator begins to fear that he is actually channeling the dead composer when forging the compositions.

House of Stairs: A group of troubled children wake up in a house which contains nothing but staircases. Gradually they realize they're being conditioned. Acts of cruelty earn more food pellets. Sleator's creepiest novel.

Interstellar Pig
: His most famous book. Light on subtext, but extremely fun and memorable. A kid realizes that the three charismatic neighbors at his parents' beach cottage--who keep playing a strange board game--are actually aliens hunting for a trinket that looks like a cyclopic pig.

I got in touch with Sleator the other day before he left for Thailand, where he spends half the year. It was a pleasure: He gave me wonderfully candid, comprehensive answers, talked about his life in Thailand--he's never talked about his personal life before, as far as I know--and gave me the fascinating story behind Fingers, among other things.


What is your life like? Do you write every day? What do you do when you're not writing?

Sleator: I can't write every day. I have to skip a day in between. If I try to do it every day, nothing comes. What I do when I'm not writing depends on where I am. In Boston I do errands, or read. I'm actually in the USA less than half the time, so a lot of my time in the US is taken up by taking care of the condo I own, going to doctors, dealing with money. Fun things like that. In Thailand, on the other hand, when I'm not writing we are driving around the countryside, looking at the incredible scenery, or exploring small villages and commenting on the houses. Everyone there builds and designs their own houses. You can look at a house and read the personality of the owner. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we gag, other times we admire. The most disgusting houses are the ones rich people build to show off, which in tropical Asia have fake ancient Greek statues on them! I also play the piano a lot, in both countries, just for the fun of it.


You're considered a "Young Adult" author, a label that suggests a certain literalness and "non-literary" quality. But when I re-read some of your novels that I'd particularly loved as a kid--Singularity, House of Stairs, and Fingers, to name a few--they seemed to me more like complex and elegantly structured novellas that also functioned as gripping entertainment. How much are you thinking about your audience when you write? Do you make a conscious effort to write books that can be appreciated on multiple levels?


Sleator: I think about my audience when I write to some extent. Thinking of writing for young adults, I try to keep the stories moving, never a dull moment, to hold their interest. Starting off at an exciting moment, not a lot of endless description. But I also do not hold my own imagination back. If I want to write something that most people would consider weird, I do it. I'm not saying it's all self-expression, you MUST be entertaining. But I try not to fit into a mold, I do what I happen to like myself. I think this is why my books don't make a lot of money. People like books that are reminiscent of other books, and I try not to be.

You spend half the year living in a remote village in Thailand on the Cambodian border. What's it like there? How did you end up having a house there?

Sleator: Hmm. Do I dare answer this question about why I live in this particular village? Well, the way things are today, I think I do dare. In Thailand, I had a male partner for 17 years--he died suddenly and unexpectedly in December of 2008. We lived in Bangkok for six years, then he decided he wanted to build a house--and make an extensive garden--near the village where he grew up, on the Cambodian border. So we built our first house, which is a long story in itself. I wrote a non-fiction book about building a house in rural Thailand called Garlic for Breakfast which has been rejected by 13 New York publishers. (Which is an example of what I've already said about people not liking books that are unique--editors were afraid of it because it was unlike anything they had ever seen before.) When the house was finished and there was no more mud and sawdust everywhere (that first house is wooden) Lep, my boyfriend (his nickname means "Fingernail"), began his garden. He was pretty casual about it, wandering over the property and tossing seeds around, planting banana and coconut trees wherever he felt like it. The result is absolutely gorgeous. His sister and various nieces and nephews moved into the house--Thai people are used to living in groups. (In fact, many families in the countryside live in one room houses. I was often asking people how the parents manage to have offspring in that situation. Nobody ever knew the answer.) So we eventually built another house on the same piece of property, for just the two of us, for privacy. Lep designed this one too. It's amazing, with replicas of Angkor Wat Buddha faces on either side of the front door, and a purple study with grotesque masks on the walls for me to write in. Finally, we built a third house in the actual village where Lep grew up--he had built the first two houses in a slightly larger village because it had a post office and a market--in those days you needed a post office. All our best friends live in the smaller, more remote village where we built our third house. Lep used to tell me what the village was like when he was growing up--he was born in 1961. There were far more trees then, before people chopped them down to make more rice fields, and therefore more rivers and more water everywhere. The one richest family in the village had a radio--period--the only connection the village had to the rest of the world. Everyone would gather at their house in the evening to listen to the news. The village where our other two houses are, and the market there, did not exist. So when he was a kid in order to go to the market you had to ride for two days in a wooden cart pulled by a water buffalo. It is different now, but the atmosphere still remains--lots of rice fields, reservoirs, farm carts going five miles an hour which have no lights on them, so driving at night can be hazardous. I love it there and never spend any time at all in crowded, polluted, impossible-traffic Bangkok any more.

Now that Lep is gone, my best friend is a fisherman. Sometimes I go fishing with him at 4 AM in a deserted lake in the middle of the jungle. No one else there, no motors, absolute silence as he pulls up his nets. I consider it to be heaven.


How did you become a writer? I've read that you were also a serious musician/composer. When did you begin writing, and how long did it take to get published?

Sleator: I've always been interested in both writing and music. When I first started getting published, I also worked as rehearsal pianist for the Boston Ballet, touring with them all over the USA and Europe--I wasn't making enough money from writing to support myself. I also composed three ballets (for no money) that the company performed. When book sales picked up and I started speaking at schools--which was very lucrative--I quit the ballet job and have been writing full time ever since.


Fingers, in addition to being an unsettling ghost story, seems like a novel about the (mysterious) sources of creative inspiration. How do you develop stories? When/how does a premise come to you? (For example, the house full of endless stairs--where did that come from?)

Sleator: Stories develop from things I read and also from my own experiences, and experiences of people I know. When I wrote Fingers--which is full of resentment and jealousy--I was still working for the ballet company. I had been there for five years. My boyfriend at the time had been working there for six months as wardrobe supervisor. The company went on its first European tour. They brought my friend because they needed somebody to take care of the costumes. They did not bring me--they used rehearsal and class tapes I made for $25 apiece. During that summer I wrote Fingers, about a kid who resents his younger brother, a child prodigy pianist. It unleashed all my resentment--I knew it was fair for him to go and me not to go, but there were still emotions involved, and that book helped me deal with them.

I got the idea for House of Stairs when I was a fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. All these writers and people who want to be writers are isolated at the top of a mountain in Vermont for two weeks. People behave differently in that situation than in ordinary life--barriers and inhibitions break down because you know you will never see most of these people again. So I got the idea of writing about five teenagers in a similar situation. I got the setting and the title from an etching by M.C. Escher. The characters are all based on friends of mine from high school.


House of Stairs
, with the children being gradually conditioned into committing acts of cruelty, is a fairly bleak book (although two of the children ultimately refuse to participate). The plots of many of your other novels involve the unexpected destructive consequences of self-interested action. (The Duplicate is one that particularly comes to mind.) What's your view of human nature? Do you believe in good and evil or would you consider yourself more inclined to relativism?

Sleator: Although I have plenty of nasty characters in my books, because they are more interesting (Who do we gossip about? Nice people or obnoxious people?) at the same time I try to stay away from good vs. evil. People adore that plot concept. I find it banal. Still, there are plenty of people in the world who you wouldn't exactly call evil, but who still do destructive things. For instance, the villain in House of Stairs does something that most people never do, which is to tell people nasty things that someone else said about them, who said it and exactly what they said, with some elaboration. I knew someone in high school who did this, and who destroyed relationships this way. It sure juiced up the plot!

Are you working on something now? If so, what?

Sleator: My next book will be called The Phantom Limb. It took my editor three months to read the revised manuscript, and we haven't talked about it yet, so I don't know when it's going to be published. It's about a teenager who finds a mirror box, which is a device created by a neurologist to help amputees deal with phantom limb pain--about 70% of amputees feel excruciating pain in the limb that has been cut off. The main character in the story is not an amputee, but the mirror box he found belonged to a kid, now dead, who was missing an arm and hand. Many people missing an arm and hand feel that their missing hand is clenched in an extremely painful way, and nothing makes that feeling go away--not medication, not hypnosis. But with a mirror box (you can google it and click the Wikipedia entry to see a good picture) you see a reflection of your whole hand, and being a reflection it is reversed, so it looks to your brain as if the missing arm and hand have returned. You can then unclench your whole hand, and watch your missing hand unclench itself in the mirror. The pain goes away, In my story--well, I better not tell any more! Read it when it comes out!

Monday, October 26, 2009

MIDNIGHT PICNIC REVIEW

Just in time for Halloween, GUD Magazine posted a review of Midnight Picnic. It's cool that reviews still keep popping up here and there eight months after publication date.

Friday, October 23, 2009

I'M SO AWAKE!

I interviewed William Sleator earlier this week. That was great, because as I've said before, I love the guy. That interview'll be up in the near future.

And here's a review I wrote of Lars von Trier's nutty Antichrist.

I've been awake all night. I'm going to go swimming in a bit. Because of the way the windows in my room face another building (and face south), I can't tell if it's sunny or not outside. Even the sunniest day looks overcast through my bedroom window. Oh well!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

THE SPIKE JONZE SHORT FILM STARRING KANYE WEST

I love it. [UPDATE: Oh no! It's gone.]

"We Were Once A Fairytale" - Kanye West Dir: Spike Jonze from Yooj‽ - Recording Live From No on Vimeo.


And, just for kicks, the old "Flashing Lights" video that Jonze shot for West.




And...

Invisible Boards

Friday, October 16, 2009

FEVERISH WORK; STORIES; WEREWOLF AND ZOMBIES AND WILD THINGS

It's nearly midnight on Friday and I'm home working hard. I briefly considered leaving my apartment but I felt like I would probably experience acute self-loathing if I accomplished nothing tonight. There are periods when productivity seems effortless (I feel like I had such a period this spring, a spectacular one, and another one briefly when I was in the DR) and other times when it's a brutal slog, a legless journey through a reeking swamp. Now is one of those times. I've done relatively nothing this past six weeks. It's not literally true--I wrote several chapters of something, and I wrote a bunch of reviews for the NYFF, and did some revisions on something else. But it's a rough time, creatively. I wonder... I know other writers read this blog... when your mind isn't cooperating with alacrity, do you persevere ("If I leave my writing for a day, it leaves me for three") or do you chill out for a bit ("I don't force it; it comes when it wants to come")? I persevere, but it's out of anxiety as much as principle.

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I read Scott McClanahan's Stories the other day. I don't know him, but he sent it to me. It's really good. I had a similar reaction to it that I had to the manuscript of Noah Cicero's Burning Babies back when. Thought it seemed sloppy at first, then got very very into it, and read the whole thing in a sitting, basically. It has a number of wonderful stories. They seem to run roughly chronologically backward in the main character's life. They are surreal and macabre and mundane. He and his friends hit a deer and try to put it out of its misery by running over it again and again, but it won't die. A man becomes obsessed with a homeless man who harassed him and keeps running into the man and fighting with him. (The end of that story is particularly great.) A boy's father becomes irate about a possum that keeps going through the garbage. The voice of the narrator is sad, selfish, empathetic, sincere, bitter, and somehow consistent. The only thing I didn't like about the stories is that in many cases, the last two or three sentences go a little too far, suddenly becoming "literary" in a way that the stories and the voice don't naturally lend themselves to. Other than that, however, they are great. I haven't read anything about this collection, published by Six Gallery, anywhere else (although I don't read as many literary blogs as I should, so for all I know it's already big on the indie lit circuit), but it's very much worth dropping a couple bucks on.

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I saw three movies in the theater in the last 24 hours. An American Werewolf in London at Lincoln Center with John Landis speaking was the first. I've seen it a couple times before, but man, what a fucking great movie. Perfect, perfect balance of humor and horror. And Landis wrote it when he was eighteen. He seems like an awesome guy.

Today I saw Zombieland, which I liked way more than I expected to. The infamous cameo was underwhelming after all I've heard about it, but still funny. What made the movie excellent was the very tight (although sometimes too hip/clever) script and the funny, committed performances by Jesse Eisenberg (who seems like a much, much better version of Michael Cera), Woody Harrelson, Abigail Breslin, and the hot, weird-looking Emma Stone. And many good lines. "Do you want to feel how hard I can punch?" "Someone's in danger of getting hair brushed over her ear!"

Then I saw Where the Wild Things Are, which I've been excited to see for a very long time now. The artistry that went into it is admirable, as are the intentions, but I was bored and frustrated. God, this movie feels like a chore. It lacks any sense of anarchy (pretty important for any adaption of the book) or whimsy or fun. I loved the first thirty seconds, up until right after the title flashes. Then we get some vague shit about Max's life and how his mom has a tough job and a boyfriend and life is hard. Trite. Then it's off to Wild Thing land and the trouble really starts. The Wild Things are some boring motherfuckers. There's one good joke that involves two owls, but the sense of wild fun and anything-can-happen invention that made Being John Malkovich such a miraculous experience is absent from this movie. The Wild Things mutter and mope and bicker and pout and it goes on forever. What a trudge.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

ROADSIDE PICNIC

John Madera reviewed Midnight Picnic in The Collagist. Cool.

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Have you ever seen Stalker? It's a Tarkovsky film about a man--a "stalker"--whose job is to guide people illegally into cordoned-off zones where aliens have visited. The aliens have left, and now the Visitation Zones are off-limits because the laws of physics don't apply there anymore and there are bizarre, incomprehensible dangers. It's a great premise and a fascinating movie, but not a great one.

It's based on a Russian novel called Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Here's the Wikipedia page. The novel has roughly the same premise but is tonally and structurally completely different. It's also, apparently, out of print. But if you Google it, you can get the .pdf of the manuscript online for free. I read it recently on my computer. It's quite short, and kind of great. I'd love to adapt this into a script. How do I find out who has the rights?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

CROWLEY ESSAY IN LAPHAM'S / ONION

I saw the other day that one of my favorite magazines just published a new essay by John Crowley. It's a wonderful essay, involving the collapse of the financial system and the Large Hadron Supercollider and much more.

Lapham's Quarterly is ridiculously fun to read. It's basically a collection of excerpts (plus one or two original essays, like Crowley's) with each issue themed. The excerpts are from a radically diverse bunch of sources usually spanning more than a millennium. When I first heard of it, I thought, "So... it's a textbook?" Then I happened to go to the launch party of the first issue a few years ago and got a free copy of the magazine, which is so addictive that I carried it with me on the subway for several days. That was the "Money" issue. Later I got the "Eros" issue which is, of course, totally fascinating.

Also, check this out: Here's Crowley interviewed by The Onion and here's the book club where they discuss Little, Big at length (scroll down).

Friday, October 09, 2009

FRIDAY

Interviewed Michael Haneke this morning. The first question I asked him was, "Are you afraid to die?" The interview went well.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

FAVORITE MOVIES OF THE DECADE?

I am heartened by the comments on this Hollywood Elsewhere post inviting lists of favorite films of the decade. I posted my list, too, and am reprinting below. (A modified/updated version of my list posted a while ago.)

1. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik)
2. Oldboy (Park Chan-wook)
3. (tie) Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky) and There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
4. War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg)
5. seasons 4 and 5 of The Shield, with Forrest Whitaker and Anthony Anderson
6. (tie) Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron) and District 9 (Neill Blomkamp)
7. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch)
8. Undertow (David Gordon Green)
9. Irreversible (Gaspar Noe)
10. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Park Chan-wook)
11. (3way tie) The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum and United 93 (Paul Greengrass)
12. The Departed (Martin Scorsese)
13. The 25th Hour (Spike Lee)
14. (tie) Grindhouse, theatrical version (Tarantino and Rodriguez) and The Devil's Rejects (Rob Zombie)
15. parts of Inland Empire (Lynch)
16. Sideways (Alexander Payne)
17. Miami Vice (Michael Mann)

honorable mentions (some seen too recently to be sure... have to let them simmer):

The Escapist
Public Enemies
Let the Right One In (but the part where he visits his father should've been cut)
The Lives of Others (I just hate that freeze frame at the end! Otherwise incredible movie.)
The Orphanage (terrifying, but the very end was too heaven-y.)

What are other people's favorites? Am I a fiend for including the Rob Zombie?

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This is more than a month old at this point, but I just saw this interview and was surprised to come across my name at the end. As I wrote when it came out earlier this year, I read An Expensive Education in galley form and thought it was excellent.

THE DREAMS

God, they're so fucking trite sometimes. I feel lame when I have adolescent wish-fulfillment dreams. Last night I dreamed some nonsense about wandering around the shopping center in the town where I grew up. I was going from store to store, buying things, occasionally shoplifting. A girl who I used to like back in high school--nine years ago, Jesus, I'm twenty-six--was riding around on a bicycle, saying flirtatious things whenever she passed. (She never said anything flirtatious to me in high school.) Her skirt was black, filmy, and translucent, revealing immodest underwear. Honestly, grow up, subconscious.

I prefer dreams that take me to incomprehensibly mutated versions of my life, like this water tiger dream or the crawlspace dreams or the museum toad dream or the vibrating presence one or that thing from the other day. Also acceptable are nightmares that get my blood pumping. When I was younger I used to have those all the time. Once when I was nine or ten or so, I had a dream about a person hung from a wall, being shot repeatedly by a torture/execution squad and vomiting all over himself while being shot. The dream was so vivid, and the sense of horror and humiliation so visceral, that for three days afterward I was incredibly well-behaved because I believed--actually believed on some level--that the dream was a warning or premonition of some kind, and that if I was bad, my parents would arrange to have this done to me. I had a similar dream around the same age where some version of my parents let alligators in a nature preserve tear my stomach open. (My parents are very nice people and were never cruel to me.) It's been a long time, though, since I woke up in the middle of the night with my heart thudding and the "real" memory of some awful dream clinging to me. I do like when bad dreams happen and I wake up and realize they're not real.

I remember once in college dreaming that I had lost one of my arms and the dread of knowing that I would now live as an amputee for the rest of my life. Waking up, I was overcome with such a sense of relief that I was almost euphoric.

Another time, in college, I dreamed that my roommate and I were killing people with a machine gun as they came running out of military barracks. (These kinds of dreams are not normal for me--which is one reason I remember them so vividly.) We killed a lot of people. Then we were arrested, and as the handcuffs were slapped on me, I woke up. You know how the dream consciousness carries over to the waking one for a moment? My first, exhilarating thought was, "Whoa... I just got away with murder."

There was also a time period when I regularly had dreams about being put in jail, usually in solitary confinement, with no shoes. I was never able to identify the cause of those dreams.

Most unpleasant are good dreams involving success, riches, or sudden good fortune. Then I wake up and realize that, no, I didn't find hundreds of shining gold doubloons at the bottom of the pool.

Do other people remember their dreams clearly? Do you? Do you have mundane dreams? Horror dreams? Are you yourself in dreams, a version of yourself, or someone else entirely? Do you do things in your dreams that you would abhor in real life? Do you tend to have wish fulfillment dreams, or horror dreams?

Saturday, October 03, 2009

PRECIOUS

Reviewed Precious, a movie I have no desire to see ever again.

THE TRUTH ABOUT YALE

Ha. Here's a postcard from this week's update of Postsecret.



Anyway, Bret Easton Ellis was right?