Friday, December 28, 2007

A Novel Year!

Words are strange little creatures. Writers try to herd them, which is sometimes like trying to herd cats. We stretch and poke and challenge them, too, so maybe they have a right to get annoyed with us.

The word novel, for instance. Yeah, it's the thing I work on when I lock myself up with the computer or read before I go to sleep at night. But think about what it really means ... (Philology warning: my Classics degree is about to assert itself.)

My old pal, the American Heritage College Dictionary (third edition--before they added "w00t") has this to say--

1. n. A fictional prose narrative of considerable length, typically having a plot that is unfolded by actions, speech, and thoughts of the characters.

So far, so good. But then ...

2. adj. Strikingly new, unusual or different.

Novel derives from deliciously vulgar Italian (itself deliciously vulgar and corrupted Latin) and the word novella, which means a choice new morsel of gossip, or new item of chit-chat, or some scintillating tale of sex and betrayal ... basically, the entertainment media of the last few thousand years, not to mention the story of Paris Hilton's life.

Ultimately, it descends from novellus (older Latin), a diminutive of novus, meaning "a little something new." You know, like novelty, which unfortunately has picked up a disreputable connotation like a bad choice in a dim nightclub, or Vera in the noir classic Detour.

A novel, by derivation, is a little something new. And as a writer and a reader, I try to keep that in mind.

Try something truly novel. Who cares if a cat-loving, divorced phrenologist at the turn of the century who finds true love and murder at a Bohemian artist-nudist colony has never been done? Who cares if you're told the market for divorced, nudist phrenologists isn't there any more? Write what's in you to write, write it well, and write it with novel in mind.

Just as you're unique, everything you do--whether it's writing, cooking, roof-building, or just plain living--will be unique, too. Thus novel. Thus new.

2008 is going to be a novel year for me any way you look at it. My book debuts in July, the year will bring fresh challenges to me as a writer, a family member, and a person (though I hope that another bout of the Big Noo won't be one of them).

The book is new, the genre is new, and I'm new. And the cool thing is that as long as there are readers who haven't discovered me, I'll always be new to someone!

So one of my New Year's reading resolutions is to find more books, more writers, more novels to uncover ... and to revel in my literary archaeology.

And of course, my top resolution is to be a novel writer. In every sense of the word.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Christmas Noir

Here it is, only my third post, and I'm already feeling behind. Y'see, I don't like blogging on Monday, because ... well, because it's Monday. But I have a ready excuse (if recovering from The Big Noo isn't enough) ... I was holiday shopping this weekend.

I don't shop in traditional places like malls. I like going to antique shops and main streets, or real city places. This year, I bought some presents in Chinatown, and it was a blast. It also doubled as research for the book I'm currently working on (it's a good trick when you can write off dim sum).

Anyway, it got me to thinking about Christmas Noir. Is there such a thing? Can there be such a thing? Nox Dormienda is set during Saturnalia, but frankly, that Roman holiday wasn't quite as fuzzy as Rudolph and the Heat Miser. ;)

Consider, for a moment, It's A Wonderful Life. Now, if you haven't seen the film, hang your head in shame and take thyself to a DVD player and watch it forthwith. Back already? You remember it now? OK.

Parts of this movie, as it propels George to the "to be or not to be" moment on the bridge ... well, that's noir to me. That close-up of his desperate, sweaty, tortured face ... the cinematography ... everything. Then there's the image of "Pottersville", which is Noir Town all the way. Violet's getting hauled away for solicitation ... Ernie's wife has left him (probably for the cop) ... and Mary is (gasp!) an Old Maid, which is even more noirish than prostitution. Pottersville is like Hammett's Poisonville--all noir, all the time, a fatal habitat.

Y'see, Capra's moral is not that the world is an all singing, all dancing utopia because George is in it ... George's world is a pretty grim place, and he's looking at a prison sentence up until the happy ending, even as he's running down Main Street shouting "Merry Christmas, you old Savings and Loan!". The moral is that George realizes the world would be worse without him. Not bad--worse. And that means he's not a failure.

This was part of the disappointment and pessimism of post World War II America, when the GIs didn't come home to the country they'd remembered and fought for, but some place quite different. It was 1946, a great year for noir (Noir City called it "the year Hollywood went dark" a couple of years ago.) I'll post more on this subject later, but it's the reason why this film is so compelling, so haunting, and deserves the title of Holiday Noir even with Clarence the Angel.

So yeah, It's A Wonderful Life, baby ... because it's the only one we've got, and compared to life ... well, the alternative is worse.

Get your jingle on and post your other holiday noir observations ... and by the way ... have yourself a merry little Christmas/holiday of your choice! :)

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Pop Culture and the Big Noo

My friend and Lost Dog writer Bill Cameron suggests I rename "The Big P" to "The Big Noo," lest I give the impression that pneumonia travels to the urinary tract. So in honor of Bill, I wanted to share some impressions along my road to recovery from you-know-what.

It takes too damn long, number one. We're used to things that feel like bad colds or viruses lasting a week. Pneumonia, from the combination of the illness itself, which is debilitating, and the antibiotics (and I was on two of them, since I like to do everything in a big way), lingers like the smell of old beer in a college dorm room.

Consequently, I'm in the frustrating stage when I want to resume life as usual and can't, because I'm weak, and feeling weak makes me irritable. No one likes to feel mortality pressing in on them, especially when your career is writing about it. Besides, I like to get into the holiday spirit, do my patriotic duty, and go shopping.

So what to do? Well, I was able to work on my new novel a little yesterday, and that made me feel better. And I've been watching TCM. A lot. I'm an old movie fan, and my next series is set in '39, so what better way to pass the time if I can't write?

Now, during my film festival, I noticed something both scary and funny ... The Big Noo was mentioned or depicted in over half the films I watched. Seems like every time the RKO Radio signal buzzed out morse code or the MGM lion roared, some character would mention pneumonia ... with one of those looks that says "I hope you've got life insurance."

Irene Dunne compared it to typhoid. Ann Southern kept kids out of the rain so they wouldn't get it. Lew Ayres, as Dr. Kildare, tried to cure it. Everywhere I turned, pneumonia. The Big Noo, indeed.

This sort of brought home how lucky we are, even in an age of diminishing antibiotics. And it made me stop fretting and slow down. Pneumonia was spoken of in my grandparents' era as if it were the Plague. Next to "consumption" (TB), it was one of those illnesses feared most throughout the 19th century--remember, Kate Winslet may have survived the Titanic, but she barely survived the Big Noo in Sense and Sensibility.

Even in 1949, the year of one of the greatest Christmas songs ever--Baby, It's Cold Outside--you don't get away from it:

There's bound to be talk tomorrow--
(Think of my life long sorrow ...)
At least there'll be plenty implied!
(If you caught pneumonia and died--)

You get the picture. The Big Noo loomed prominently in the pop culture of the past. I'm gonna give it the respect it deserves, and quit treating it like a virus. Maybe when NOX DORMIENDA comes out next July, I'll run a contest for the most Big Noo citations in pop culture ... and next year ... well, I'm getting a pneumonia shot!