Friday, July 17, 2009

Read this Book: A Better View of Paradise

A movie made me interested in this novel, A Better View of Paradise. Randy Sue Coburn wrote the script for Mrs. Parker and The Vicious Circle, which is one of my favorite films. Her novel, about fathers, daughters, secrets, family and the Islands hooked me with her first sentence and I am delighted Randy offered to let me pepper her with questions.

The Hawaiian islands hold sway in this remarkable novel and truly cast a spell. Did you live out there to research? What was it like?

Hawaiian life can be so alive to the elements that many children are taught to ask permission of the appropriate god or goddess before they step into a stream or pick a flower. I’d visited the island of Kaua`i a handful of times, but when I returned knowing I’d like to set a book there, it was almost like the entire trip was a continuous request for permission to do just that. And I’m just nuts enough to think that I received answers all over the place! First I found an old plantation-style house to rent just like the one where I imagined my protagonist Stevie lived when she was a child, and discovered a locally published memoir about growing up in Kaua`i written by Waimea Williams. Two major sources of inspiration right there, since I couldn’t get off the dime until Stevie’s childhood felt real to me. On Sunday mornings I would listen to a local veterinarian’s call- in show on Kaua`i’s NPR affiliate station, and when my husband and I found a lost puppy one day, I knew that both a radio vet and that little dog belonged in the book. As did the Hawaiian language church, where the congregation’s ethereal harmonies make you feel as though you’ve just had your ticket to heaven punched. Maybe I’m more superstitious than most writers (I doubt it!), but even putting Hawai`i aside, such synchronicities seem like little blessings that help make another book possible.

You've written about the creative life before, in your screenplay for Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, a film I loved. What drew you to Dorothy Parker and to the story?

I’m so glad the film spoke to you! Dorothy Parker was deeply embedded in my maternal lineage. My flapper grandmother, who wrote poetry, adored her. And my mother, who’s a painter, always had a copy of “The Portable Dorothy Parker” on the shelf of her bedside table. When I was thirteen and imagining myself heartbroken, I would copy Parker poems into my journal. Then when I went to work at a big city newspaper (I’m from small town South Carolina), Parker was a role model for me and all my twenty-something female colleagues (including Maureen Dowd) who wanted to write with Parker’s kind of precision and wit. Maybe the Parker deal was sealed by the fact that I became pals with Nat Benchley, the grandson of Parker’s great friend and fellow Round Tabler, the humorist Robert Benchley? Sometimes I wonder. What’s for sure is that when the director Alan Rudolph suggested that I write for him a script based on someone like Dorothy Parker, I said why not the genuine article?

Which do you prefer, writing scripts or novels, and why?

I love writing screenplays, though compared to novels, they’re a bit like writing haiku. Plus with movies, the director always has the last laugh—it’s her or his medium. The advantage of novel writing, as John Sayles says, is that nobody’s going to tell you, “Hey, we just ran out of money, get rid of all your adjectives.” But with movies, that kind of thing happens all the time. I remember being so sad when the dinner party seduction I wrote for Dottie in “Mrs. Parker” turned into a teatime quickie behind bushes because we could only afford to rent our faux Long Island mansion for exteriors. What this all boils down to, I guess, is a preference for writing novels. But brother, if another good project came my way, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Even Guild minimum buys someone like me a whole heap of time to work on a novel.

I always ask about process because I find it so fascinating. How do you work? Do you outline? Fly by the seat of your pants? What rituals do you have when you work?

I’m of the school that says if you want to make God laugh, show him your outline. I do find outlines useful, though, in giving the illusion that you know where you’re heading. I’m just way too left-brained to find the kind of juice in outlining that some of my more right-brained writer pals do. What gets my engines revving more is stream of consciousness, present-tense writing that lets ideas pop out unedited, and noting what scenes might be suggested by those ideas. So I try to keep track of those things in a journal. And when all else fails, I knit. If I can turn a heel on a sock, which always seems like a small miracle, then maybe I can write a scene. Or so I tell myself.

What rituals do you have when you work?

First of all, I work in bed. Which I’ve been told is not a great thing to announce to the world at large, but you know what I mean. And I do this on an old, brain damaged computer with absolutely no internet capability so I won’t be tempted to check e-mail or go online. But probably the most important ritual in my writing life is that most every Wednesday, I meet for lunch with my pal Jack Remick. We always go to the same place, and always split a burger, French fries, and salad, and after we eat, we read our pages for the week—which we do aloud, alternating paragraphs (very handy when you get to a dialogue passage), not stopping to discuss until we’re finished. Jack’s a poet as well as a novelist, so his ear for language is terrific, and he’s great at helping me get my guy characters’ dialogue sounding more guy-ish. I seriously doubt that I would have finished my last two books if it weren’t for weekly lunches with Jack. I don’t think it’s just the old journalist in me responding to a deadline, either. When I put those pages on the table, even if they suck, working on them with Jack gives the book a more solid reality outside my head. I also—and this sounds really retarded—read finished chapters to my mother on the phone. She’s a creative person, too, and always gets what I’m going for. I’m lucky she likes being read to because I often catch stuff doing this that I wouldn’t otherwise.

Ah, the dreaded question: What are you working on now and why?

I’ve just finished an outline (ha!) and the first few chapters of a novel about a woman who writes historical fiction, and is alarmed when instead of writing herself into the past, as she’s always done, she seems to be writing herself into the future—her future. More than that, I’m too superstitious to say!

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

Hmmm, How about:

The father in your book is an avid Chicago Cubs fan; why did you decide to make baseball such a bond between Stevie and her dad?

Because I knew all about that bond from my own father—a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, like Stevie’s. The 2003 season, when the Cubs were just one game away from the World Series before blowing it, was my dad’s last chance to see his team go the distance. I gave to Stevie all my own hopes that Cubs wins would extend my dad’s life. Which is not quite so insane as it sounds, when Wrigley Field is your father’s only church of the resurrection. I haven’t been to Wrigley Field since my dad died, but I plan to sneak in a handful of his ashes to scatter under the bleachers next time I go.


Jessica Keener said...

Nice interview. I visited Hawaii once. Before I went, I had all kinds of negative preconceptions (thinking it was a cliche for honeymooners, etc.). But I was wrong. It's a beautiful island with a different sensibility. And it smelled great.


Anonymous said...

My last novel was set mostly in Hawaii. Maybe the islands are about to see a literary boom? Mine is set in Kona, on the Big Island, the way it was in the late 60s, not what it has become. If you're interested, you can find a link to it from my webblog ...

The novel is called, "The Common Bond."