Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tom Perrotta And Fiction For Film

I just read Tom Perrotta’s Little Children, a suburban satire about a neighbourhood of unfulfilled soccer moms and their reaction when a convicted sex offender comes out of jail and moves in close by with his mother. It was a good, quick read, if not a memorable one, mainly due to the lack of particularly interesting characters, reflecting as they did the predictable archetypes of the Book Club Belt. Also, I resent it when you’re reading a book and it’s obviously been tailored to be flogged for its film rights. The soap opera plot culminates in the overtly contrived tying up of all loose ends, and you’re left feeling less like a reader and more like a sucker.

Little Children has already been released as a film, as was one of Perrotta’s earlier novels. That’s grand for the author, who has to make a living like the rest of us. I just wonder why he didn’t quit the pretence and type it up as a film script to start with.

The two occasions I’ve managed to sign up with literary agents were because of novels that apparently had film potential. Again, it’s a business like any other, and literary agents who have to pay the mortgage know that selling a novel on its fine literary merits alone will maybe pay for a new hat. And more likely a baseball cap than a handmade Tyrolean with a feather in its band. But rather than share the bubbling enthusiasm of the London agent who once said, “Ian, this has got film rights written all over it!” I was more disconcerted that this was seen as the book’s main selling point. Although, as neither book of the two ‘film potential’ novels was sold, that was maybe not the case after all (leaving them with a total of zero selling points).

Not that I’d have been turning my nose up at a fat check from a studio eager to secure the future production of a book about a…ha ha, I’m not going to tell you what it was about in one line. When I attended a script-writing class, that was the first lesson. Learn to sum up what your film is about in a single, two-clause sentence. “It’s about a [main character], who [has a goal].” Hollywood moguls are busy people, and they get distracted if your idea takes more than three seconds to explain, supposing you (or your agent) can actually get to talk to one in the first place.

You have a little more leeway when writing a novel and presenting it to a literary agent (also very busy people). Maybe as long as it takes to describe a book on the back of its jacket. Typically, that will be a three to four sentence paragraph, and each sentence will include a teaser, with references to at least one of the following: an unhappy marriage, a stunted career, a sexual deviant, an unfulfilled parent, a character with a seemingly terminal illness, an addict of some sort, and a group of people who are members of a book club.

The agent will then judge if your novel has the potential to sell as a film, and may agree to read the first three chapters. Depth, length and too much ambiguity are unwelcome, while vague membership in a discernible current publishing trend or category such as Lad Lit, Sad Lit, Bad Lit, Buddy Lit, Lamp Lit (just invent one and say you saw it mentioned in the New York Times Book Review) is an absolute imperative. If necessary, spell it out and put the words into their mouth: “I really feel this book has film rights written all over it.”

There are three sorts of novelist. 1.Unpublished – that would be most of us. 2. Acclaimed – that is, published and admired by family, friends and a handful of discerning readers and critics. And 3. Successful – that would be your Tom Perrottas. Readable, forgettable, but very sellable. Writing to a formula that succeeds. Mrs. Pop believes it’s the key to her early retirement. I’m still waiting for the Big Bad Idea to encapsulate in a single, two-clause sentence.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Walking Into Cars

This is why I never leave the house. I just get annoyed by stuff.

On Monday afternoon I was walking across Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda, in order to get from one side of the street to another. Everything was in order – both my legs were working, and the pedestrian light was clearly indicating that now was the time for walkers to make the transition from one footpath to another. Yet I hadn’t reached the road’s middle island before meeting a major obstacle in my path – a stationary automobile.

The driver had decided at the last minute he wasn’t going to jump a red light, so settled instead for obstructing pedestrians. I saw no reason why I should walk around the car, so I walked into it, thumping the passenger window. Then I walked around it and looked back to see if the driver had noticed. He was laughing, like he was in on a big joke with me. I made a gesture to let him know I wasn’t that amused. Just as he might have been annoyed to come to a green light and find a line of pedestrians standing around in the road, looking vacant and impeding his progress.

Coming back the same way a few hours later, at the exact same crossing, I found a mini-van in the same position. Like the earlier car, the driver had plenty of space to reverse and free up the pedestrian’s right of way, but he had an important phone call to make instead. For a second time, I walked straight into the car door, causing him some surprise and consternation. He didn’t think it was as funny as the first driver, and some hostile gestures were exchanged. Next time I’ll just climb over and leave a boot mark on his roof.

“How did you know he wasn’t packing some heat?” asked the sensible Mrs. Pop. I only think about these things afterwards. Despite having lived in the US for nine years, I still have faith that most people won’t pull a gun on me just for trying to make a point.

Mind you, walking into someone’s car is more likely to be construed as violating an American’s basic human right to do whatever the fuck he or she wants when they’re behind the wheel of a car. But what a way to go, as a martyr to the cause of pedestrian rights.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Be Sure Your Bin Will Find You Out

To the left is a photograph of our amazing and magical kitchen bin. Regardless of how much rubbish you put in, it never overflows, at least according to the rest of my family. No matter how full it appears, they claim, if you press your new rubbish in hard enough the bin will miraculously create just enough space to allow you to force the lid back down.

Eventually, though, someone comes along who doesn’t believe in magic. That would be me, the first person in the family to get sick of picking up apple cores, chicken bones and bottle tops from around the bottom of the bin when the magic hasn’t quite worked. While the family is out at school and work I’ll empty the bin into the rubbish can outside, and when they come home at the end of the day – abracadabra! The magic bin’s working again!

What they don’t witness is the sight of a severely compressed plastic bag of kitchen waste being eased from its receptacle in an operation that requires strength, skill and patience, all executed with suspended breath to suppress your sense of smell. The dense sack and its festering contents must then be carried down the back steps and into the much more spacious dustbin outside. Often, something sharp or pointed pokes through the plastic, creating a hole through which a malodorous combination of bacon fat, vegetable oil and several indeterminate liquids can create a slick several yards long. But at least a liquid spillage can be mopped up, usually with a sense of relief that, over the course of a week, nothing has mutated inside there to now burst forth with an evil laugh and announce that it intends to kill its creator, and then, ha ha, take over the world.

Yesterday, though, just before I reached the outside bin, the bag split and spilled its entire contents on the ground, and I was privileged to see a geological depiction of what the family had eaten over the past week, composted in layers with a line of moist ground coffee marking the cut-off point for each daily menu. Plus some other stuff. Then I had the pleasure of scooping it all up.

Despite our best efforts to recycle as much glass, plastic and paper as possible, it’s still alarming to be confronted with all the things you’re throwing out (especially when it makes you gag). There was still plenty of garbage in there that will outlive me by thousands of years. It’s probably why the rest of the family prefers to believe in the myth of the never-emptied bin, rather than risk a mucking-in session with fetid peelings, moldering leftovers and, worst of all, discarded items like the blood-smeared thick plastic packaging that encased the ribs of industrially farmed pigs. Oh, the shame.

I cared enough about all this to buy a book called Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte, subtitled ‘On The Secret Trail Of Trash.’ Wired magazine calls it “a riveting travelogue punctuated by a scathing indictment of American consumption.” But although I know I ought to read it, I don’t really want to (I hate being indicted). I bought it in the middle of last year in a brief fit of troubled consciousness, but it keeps getting perused and then placed back at the bottom of my reading pile.

Maybe I’m hoping that one day I’ll look at the pile of books and – abracadabra! Garbage Land will have magically disappeared.