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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Joshua and the Query Manager

I decided to change my process for getting queries as I prepared for heading from 2022 into 2023.  And here's an updated/revised version of my earlier blog post about querying.


1.  If you don’t follow the guidelines, your query will be deleted, unread and without a response.

2.  I'm now using Query Manager, a system that's generally been proven helpful to both agents and authors, and all queries should be submitted via

3.  Once upon a time, I asked only for the query letter, but it's been a long time since queries were sent in #10 business envelopes with an SASE. At this point, I'm not longer accepting paper queries, and I'm asking you to send ten sample pages with your Query Manager query.  This will help speed things along, since I can more easily give a "yes" or "no" on borderline queries where the pages themselves are serving as tie-breaker, and I'm less likely to ask for a full manuscript only to realize when I finally get around to reading it that I really maybe shouldn't've.

4.  The query letter should be brief.  If you were to print it on old-fashioned paper - and I suggest you should as a test - it should fit onto a one page standard business letter without having to squeeze the font and font size to 9-point Tahoma.

6.  And while brief, the query should have relevant information on both yourself and your manuscript.

In May 2016, I found this wonderful "Is Your Query Ready" diagram via @davidrslayton on Twitter. Take a look before you hit "send" on your query.

I want to talk a little more about relevance, starting with "relevant information about yourself."  For a published writer, your credits are relevant.  For other authors, it might be having a job or life experience of some sort that ties very directly to the book you have written.  For authors without credits or credentials, it might be adding something that suggests your knowledge or familiarity with the genre or category you plan to write in.  And when all else fails, tell us about where you grew up, where you went to school, but always something.  Check out this article from Publishers Weekly (I don't think it's behind paywall), about a writer finding an agent.  Hate to give spoilers, but basically, the only agent who read the manuscript appears to be someone who thought he recognized the name as that of a high school classmate.  If you think it's silly to start telling me where you grew up, where you went to school -- well, I can understand why; it does seem silly.  But it's a lot less silly than writing a query letter that suggests there isn't a single interesting thing about the author.

Relevant information about the manuscript:  Avoid adjectives.  You're not a third-party observer who's earned the right to say your manuscript is "romantic" or "thrilling" or "fast-paced" or any other adjective you might choose to apply to your own work.  And remember it's a business letter, and not cover copy.  

Here’s what I want:

I always like science fiction and fantasy, but there are also at least three other people at the agency who look at science fiction and fantasy.  Will I look?  Sure!  But ask yourself if there’s some extra special reason that you want to direct the submission to me instead of one of my colleagues.  I tend to shy away from the more literary part of the sf/fantasy spectrum, but I’d rather make the call here. If it looks intriguing, but not in line with my personal tastes, I may share with someone else in the office.  And yes, I will look at something that has been turned down by someone else at JABberwocky, but have a really good reason before you do that.

On the other hand, I also like good mysteries and thrillers, and there aren’t as many people here who share that interest.  I’d love to see some great projects in these genres.  People forget that I was working with Charlaine Harris for many years as a cozy mystery writer before Sookie Stackhouse hit it big, and the very first novel I ever sold was a mystery novel.  I’m open to the full range of work in these categories.

I want more non-fiction, and I've been selling more of it.  Aki Peritz's Disruption came out in 2021 and was named a Year's Best title by both Kirkus and Christian Science Monitor.  Film books by Sean O'Connell, Tres Dean, and Steve Kozak.  Query Manager lists specific categories, but a few hints.  I was a history major in college.  I started reading Variety when I was in high school and have been fascinated by show business since forever. I see 100+ movies a year, and in 2021 when a lot of other things were shut down saw - all in movie theaters - 170.  I read at least three newspapers a day, and I look at pretty much every page of every section, like not reading every single article, but there isn't much that's happening in the world that I'm not at some level interested in.  All that said, most non-fiction requires credentials of some sort.  

The executive summary here:  I want to see fiction in just the “core for me” genres of sf/fantasy and mystery/thrillers, and a few other categories detailed in Query Manager, but I mostly want to stick with what's gotten me through my first 35 years in publishing.  Nonfiction, I’ll look a little more broadly.

The process:

It may take several weeks for me to get to the query in-box.  I'm eager to be looking, but good windows of time for either myself or my assistant to delve into the query box come sporadically.  I've always got manuscripts from current clients, some due to publishers that need to be read ASAP, and there's a lot of prioritization and triage to keep on top of it all.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Oscars Live Blog 2022

11:55 PM Poor Netflix. Poor, poor Netflix. It can put all the money it wants into movies that are like the Wonder Twins, movies which have the form of Oscar winners but which really aren’t. It can spend its riches and get award nominations aplenty.  But then the actual voting begins, and more and more people come into the process, and then the hollowness of things starts to show. The Irishman isn’t Goodfellas. Roma isn’t The Prisoner of Azkaban. The Power of the Dog isn’t Unforgiven. And when the time comes for the awards to get announced, Netflix doesn’t have the top prize.  Poor poor poor poor Netflix.  But that said, Netflix did give us Tick Tick…Boom this year. Also, Netflix isn’t poor. But there’s a rich irony to having Apple TV+ get a Best Picture for CODA while Netflix is still waiting.

And as to the show, it’s an Oscar ceremony. It is what it is.  Embrace what it is. Present the awards on the air, please.  Don’t farm out production to Eon Productions, which is what happened according to the end credits, for Eon’s own James Bond movies, because that’s like the query letter where the author of a book describes their own book in the most glowing terms. Don’t make us squint to read the In Memoriam names in back of the band but do have some personal reminiscences. 

Dune ended up with the most Oscar wins, as was predicted. It deserves them. CODA was nominated for three awards and won all three, which is impressive in its own right.

My personal wish - that someone at Apple is calling all the major movie chains right this second to get some screens to be showing CODA come Friday.  This movie deserves to be seen in theatres by way more people than have been able.

Oh - a moment to see, with the two ASL interpreters during the CODA speech, one facing forward to the TV cameras and one facing to the cast and crew on stage. 

11:42 PM three hours and forty two minutes later. And for this they added another hour of unaired ceremony to present eight awards.  

11:17 PM I spoke about the Best Actor race in my pre-show comments. I’m happy for Will Smith, it’s a great performance.  It’s an imperfect movie, but it’s a great performance. But - if you’re in my business, what Andrew Garfield does in Tick Tick…Boom is speak to all of us - to all the authors I’ve been blessed to work with who want to create art and have help sharing it. 11:06 PM Another glimpse of Kodi Smit-McPhee in his great tux as the Pulp Fiction people come on to the stage!

11:08 PM I was happy with the win for Best Song. Part of it is just that I really liked the song. It’s kind of short. It isn’t used as much as a recurring motif in the movie as some other Bond songs; You Only Live Twice or All Time High, as examples, are all over their respective movies. Maybe the biggest part of it is that Billie Eilish is one of the better of my pandemic memories. I can’t see 170 movies in an ordinary year. Like, I just can’t. There are so many other things to do.  But not in 2021. And the documentary about Billie Eillish is one of the movies that I got to in 2021 that I probably would have skipped past in a normal year because I’m not in to Billie Eilish. But last year, I was on the train to White Plains to learn about Billie. And there’s something wonderful about the story of her and her brother. And there’s something wonderful about their joy and happiness winning this Oscar. This moment got to me.

10:57 PM Billie and Finneas seem happy! The betting money was on the Encanto song, but I liked this one best.

11:02 PM took a few notes on the people in the In Memoriam section. These are some of the ones whose involvement in particular films has a special resonance for my own personal highlight reel.

Leslie Bricusse - two James Bond themes including the all time high of You Only Live Twice, and Blake Edwards/Julie Andrew’s classic Victor Victoria.

Two Supermen. Director Richard Donner, and Otis’ own Ned Beatty. And each did so much more than that, but Superman: The Movie will forever be one of the best superhero movies ever made, and it’s much more than that. In fact, while we might debate forever which superhero movie is best, I think Superman: The Movie will forever be the most quoted. Ten Dollars, Two Credit Cards, a Hairbrush, and a Lipstick.

Douglas Trumbull worked on so many classic sf movies. He created the landscape of the imagination for science fiction fans, and the landscapes he created will survive pretty much forever. And Alan Ladd, Jr. was one of the producers of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. 

You don’t know Irwin Young, but he headed up a film processing lab in New York, and if he believed in a young filmmaker he’d give them a break on some of their film and processing, which was a big expense, and without which some great movies might not have had the money to get made. A pay it forward person hidden in the shadows.

William Hurt. Seeing Altered States with Hurt in December 1980 was one of the seminal moments in my becoming such a big film fan. It was the first movie I ever saw at the Astor Plaza, the first movie I saw in 70mm 6-track Dolby that wasn’t a science fiction epic, where the brilliance of the use of sound heard on a really great sound system in a theatre with a really big screen kind of blew me away.  

10:47 PM the accompaniments to the memoriam list, like having Bill Murray talk about Ivan Reitman - something I’d happily see more of. Really nice touch.

10:40 PM I was seven when my parents took me to see The Godfather - took the whole family to see Theh Godfather. Horse’s head and toll booth scene and all. I was seven. It was in upstate New York on the way back from visiting relatives who lived even further upstate.

10:38 PM: The Godfather tribute was so much better than the one to James Bond, introduced by an actual film person and leading into actual film people. Great to see de Niro, Coppola and Pacino on stage together for a few minutes.

10:36 PM: Did I just spot a shot of Anthony Hopkins in the audience? Last year’s MIA actor winner Anthony Hopkins?  

10:31 PM A beautiful moment watching Questlove’s mom during his acceptance speech. And now we need the longer version, these festivals as done up in all ways as the footage from Woodstock has been.

10:22 PM Best Score - another win for Dune, and for Hans Zimmer.  Zimmer’s been around for a long time. I first left humming a score of his with Rain Man back in the 1980s.  Score was strong enough, or the nominees poorly selected enough, that one of the best of the year, Johnny Greenwood’s for Spencer, didn’t even make the cut, though Greenwood was nominated for The Power of the Dog. The score for Dune wasn’t hummable, but like Michael Giacchino’s for The Batman there are a lot more paths where the movie’s worse with anything or anyone else than trying to imagine there’s better. 

10:15 PM and Kenneth Branagh’s been around for a really really long time. He first came to my attention in the movie Dead Again, which I saw twice when it opened in 1991, including at the Astor Plaza which was my favorite place to see a movie, 1500 seats with a great rake and great sound and a great big screen which made movies better because “here, they are.”  And Branagh’s done all sorts of things. He’s done Shakespeare. He’s done superhero movies (I say the underrated Thor). He’s done Christie. He’s done big films and small films and art films and written and directed and starred. He’s been nominated for eight Academy Awards in seven different categories.  It’s the thing about being nominated in seven different categories that’s worth having a think on. I don’t know if Belfast deserves an Oscar, but let’s finally have one of those on Kenneth Branagh’s shelf.

10:08 PM There’s something deeper about the wins for Kenneth Branagh and Sian Heder in the screenplay categories.  As Sian said, CODA isn’t a “big” movie.  Yeah, Apple paid a fortune for it after its Sundance debut, reported at $25M.  But that was after the movie was made. There wasn’t $25M in the budget for a film about a family of deaf parents and the speaking daughter wanting to sing while the family struggles with its fishing business.  There’s a definite Rocky quality, to CODA just coming along and winning people over for what it is. 

10:05 PM The CODA speech was just plain sweet.

10:00 PM A lot of the chatter ahead of the show was that Don’t Look Up would win Best Original Screenplay, but I guess all the Netflix $$ and award touting in the world couldn’t quite make up for the fact that Don’t Look Up isn’t a very good movie. So Branagh’s win here for Belfast is somewhat a surprise for me. Belfast isn’t a great movie, but it’s a heartfelt and well-meaning one, and the other nominees in the category aren’t earth-shattering great.  So, kudos for Branagh.

9:28 PM The win for CODA and Troy Kotsur is a reminder that you can tell a familiar story and do wonderful things with it and make it fresh and new and wonderful. We’ve seen the movie about the competition, sports or music or otherwise. But the specifics of CODA made it fresh, and the freshness added passio and sincerity above and beyond all the usual. It’s a shame more people haven’t had an opportunity to see it which doesn’t involve a streaming fee to watch on a small screen. The emotions in this movie are large, and best shared with company.

9:25 PM: Yay Troy Kotsur, who gave the strongest performance in the category. 

8:55 PM I don’t understand the purpose of the Bond tribute. It’s introduced by people from the sports world. It wasn’t possible to find talent from the Bond movies themselves? It’s just clips with no thematic organization. It has no point of view, no theme, no purpose.  Why not have a a live performance of a Bond song to accompany the clips? There’s a lot you can do or talk about when you’re talking about sixty years of James Bond, and this did none of it.

8:39 PM Cinematography was a strong strong category. Dune was gorgeous to look at. Nightmare Alley was gorgeous to look at. West Side Story - well, it wasn’t gorgeous, but it was a work of art. The Tragedy of Macbeth was memorably stylized. And even Power of the Dog - didn’t like the movie but it was gorgeous to look at. I’m glad that Dune won, but any of the five in this category did award caliber work at an extremely extremely high level.

8:37 PM ‘Nominated three times and this is the most words I’ve ever spoken here” Woody Harrelson

8:36 PM This show shouldn’t be making me uncertain about what’s live and what isn’t. That’s amateur hour, really, and it’s the second time it’s happened. 

8:35 PM Is is live or is is Memorex? The Sound win for Dune feels like it was one of the pre-awards, because otherwise how did six people get up on stage the moment the award was announced?

8:32 PM Remind me not to hire the writers for this ceremony when I produce an award show. This is falling flat. Reminds me of my pat down at SLC coming back from Utah. 

8:28 PM We’re 25 minutes in to the Oscars and one award has been given out. Well, except for all of the awards that were given out when no one was watching so we could have a better more engaging telecast. Which this telecast is so totally not, to this point.

8:23 PM Ariana DeBose was predicted to win for Supporting Actress. This, to me, isn’t a strong category this year. The performance I found most memorable was Aunjanue Ellis’ in King Richard, and that’s a really good job of a role that’s often kind of generic, of the wife in a biopic sitting in the background.

8:17 PM: I guess they had to do something to cover for the reduced capacity at the Dolby for this year’s ceremony, but the pepole sitting at private tables is bringing unwanted flashbacks to last year’s ceremony.

8:05 PM: But I don’t like the telecast starting with something that’s either on tape or taking place live at a remote location, and worse not being 100% sure which of those two it is. There’s no energy in the room when the thing isn’t happening in the room, and thus no kickstart to my viewing.

8:03 PM: Though if having King Richard in the race means the Oscars kick off with Venus and Serena - that’s a good thing.

7:57 PM: Best Picture - I guess it’s nothing new, but the Oscar list of Best Picture nominees includes a lot of movies that didn’t do it for me. Belfast is fine, but that’s not Best Picture caliber. West Side Story is fine, and often masterfully crafted, but I don’t think it made its case for existing and remaking the Robert Wise version. Drive My Car is fine for a three hour Japanese movie about a multi lingual production of Uncle Vanya, but that’s what it is. King Richard has some great performances in it; no complaints from my if Will Smith wins over my first choice (Andrew Garfield in TT…Boom for Best Actor), but it’s too long and worse I can identify the things that could’ve been cut because it isn’t brain surgery. Nightmare Alley is good, great, surprisingly so for a director I’ve been mixed on.  The Power of the Dog is just Oscar bait, and nothing more, and I hate seeing it rewarded for existing as Oscar bait by being nominated for Oscars. Licorice Pizza isn’t close to Best Picture stuff, meandering and detouring and not in a good way.  Don’t Look Up might work from home when you can be distracted and not focus on its one note, but I saw it in a theatre and around a half hour in realized it was one note and stopped hearing it. CODA, Dune, Tick Tick… Boom, Nightmare Alley.  Four contenders from my POV, and six pretenders.

7:41 PM: Thoughts before the big event:

My own Top Ten of the year has very little overlap with the Best Picture nominees.

Dune and Tick Tick… Boom are my far and away favorite films of last year.  I think Coda has a good chance at winning Best Picture because of the preferential ballot.  If you like The Power of the Dog, Dune isn’t your second choice.  If you like Dune, Power of the Dog isn’t your second choice.  While Coda’s a super hard movie not to have some affection for.  I wish it had been seen more in theatres, instead of opening over the summer when the box office was still highly impaired, especially in New York City.  I’ve written about Tick Tick… Boom on my Letterboxd.

Attica is a great documentary, but isn’t favored in that category.  I don’t dislike Summer of Soul, and I enjoyed Flee a lot more than I thought.  I would recommend both. But Attica is brilliant.  You’ve heard about Attica, but probably just heard about it. Even growing up in New York, for an event that happened in my lifetime, I knew not near enough. It’s not just that there was a prison riot. It’s not just that the prison was stormed. It’s that NY Governor Nelson Rockefeller, goaded on by a Richard Nixon who wasn’t fond of black prisoners - emphasis on black - wasn’t much concerned for the prison guards, mostly black. It’s that most of the deaths of the prisoners occurred in wanton shooting gallery violence after the prison had been taken, which is also when upward of a dozen guards were killed by the “law enforcement” storming the prison. And then the state tried to blame the prisoners, and took state vengeance against the person (a medical examiner, in particular) who wasn’t buying into the official lie. And here we are half a century later and it’s still perfectly fine to a lot of white people if there are other whites as collateral damage in the battle for white supremacy.  It’s a fact. And I should’ve been taught some of that in the decade after Attica, when I was a high school student, not finding it decades later in this great Showtime documentary.

Mass is also a great movie, which won an ensemble Spirit Award.  Like Attica it’s an issue movie, but one without resolution.  The parents of a school shooter and the parents of one of the victims get together for an hour of talk time.  It’s not didactic. It covers all sides. It’s brilliantly acted by all concerned. The movie drips with quiet tension. You’ve never gotten the willies the way you do in the opening ten minutes here from watching someone lay out refreshments in a church meeting room.

Ennio is another documentary, about the Italian composer Ennio Morricone.  It’s three hours long.  It’s about a dude who composes music. But thanks to brilliant editing and passion for the subject matter, these three hours go by a lot faster than The Batman. I learned a lot about the subject. I can quibble; I’d have liked to have seen more of the music as used in the movies rather than in montaged moments. But this is on my Top Ten for both being good, and for being good when it had no right to be.

Free Guy? On my list because it’s a good movie in a genre where most of the movies are bad.  It’s fresh and fun and creative in a genre where most of the movies are derivative. It brings some of the same qualities to the superhero action movie that inspired me twenty years ago to want to be in the Brandon Sanderson business.  It does what its peer group barely tries doing.

Same, more of less, with Spider-Man: No Way Home.  The battles are a little less overdone than most of its peer group. Tom Holland has “it.”. He’s a movie star, and he carries the movie, and he shows why he’s a better Spider-Man than Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire.  He may not be a better overall actor than Andrew Garfield, but he has more “it” than Garfield does. And the movie worked even though I hadn’t seen the first Doctor Strange movie, hadn’t seen the second Andrew Garfield Spider-Man movie.

Spencer - as Nick Martell said after we watched it, it’s kind of like a horror movie.  Princess Di having Xmas dinner with the royals is a little like arriving at the country house in Get Out.  The pearls, the soup, the pearls, the stairs, the soup, the score. 

And Pig?  I like the playing off of the wildly different acting styles from Alex Wolfe and Nicolas Cage. 

Dune - I thought I wrote about on Letterboxd but I guess not.  For me, it’s the biggest of big screen movies I’ve ever seen. Every frame, every visual, every everything, soaks up space on the IMAX screen. It’s a little short on plot, honestly. But the cast is good across the board, and I love the sheer bigness of it. Given sufficient time in between, I will go back and see this movie on IMAX on a pretty regular basis because it gives me an engulfing experience that I rarely ever find in the movies.

Any Ten Best list, it’s a snapshot.  

Monday, October 25, 2021

WINDERS by Ryan O’Nan

 This week I’m  celebrating the publication of WINDERS by Ryan O’Nan, in audio from Recorded Books and and in print and ebook from JAB Books.

Ryan’s a screenwriter and actor who’s written for or performed on many of your favorite TV shows.  He’s currently doing both on ABC’s Big Sky, after several seasons with USA’s Queen of the South and a couple in the writer’s room for Hulu’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga.  He was just seen on the big screen in the recently release Copshot, and other TV credits include Skins, Marvel’s Legion, Ray Donovan, and many more.

The thing that impresses me most is Ryan’s willingness to put in the hard yards on succeeding as a prose writer.  If you’re writing for television, you’re used to having your work rewritten. A script with your name on it will have had many hands changing your words along the way, and if you’re a staff writer you’re one of the people doing that on everyone else’s scripts. But these are also jobs that come with long enough hours and a good enough paycheck that there’s something very different about doing revisions speculatively for a literary agent. I may or many not end up representing your book in the end, and I may or may not end up selling it.  

But there was none of that working with Ryan.  Ryan’s a reader, a big fan of authors like Brandon Sanderson.  For all Ryan’s success in Hollywood, he was driven to make his prose fiction work at the same level of success as his screenwriting and acting.  I had to pinch myself a few times because if I was Ryan I don’t know if I’d be as patient with the process as Ryan himself was. 

WINDERS is a great coming of age story about two people on the cusp of adulthood.

One, Charlie, has a great power.  He doesn’t know what his power is, he doesn’t know what the consequences are of using it, and he doesn’t know how it’s already screwed up his life.  He’s about to use this power in so big a way that people are going to notice.

Juniper’s one of those people.  She’s grown up in a society where everyone can “wind” like Charlie can, where everyone can relive just a wee bit of their past, make the bad things go away. She’s one of the good ones, but she’s so in her own world that she isn’t entirely aware of what it means to be one of the bad ones.  Because you can take it for granted.

Yeah, Charlie and Juniper are going to hook up.

Like much of the best fiction, you’ll find aspects of it that remind you of other things. The gift with unknown consequence, as an example, is something explored in E.C. Myers’ FAIR COIN. The conflict between the special people Juniper hangs with and the rest of us, there’s a taste of DIVERGENT.  But there’s something special about Ryan O’Nan and WINDERS.  Ryan has the story-teller’s gift.  He’s writing about characters that emerged from his life in ways that he explains in a couple of the launch week blog tour stops, which I’ll be linking to and sharing.  And Ryan’s story is so good because it isn’t just about Charlie and Juniper. The secondary characters in WINDERS never get short shrift in Ryan’s prose. Some of them are capable of doing cruel things, but they never seem cruel to the person doing them. There’s this narrow line between the things people do that are 100% right but end up becoming 100% cruel in their after-effects, and the things that are clearly cruel going in save that there’s there’s this inexorable logic to them for the person doing.  Charlie and Juniper are two of the people who have choices to make, who can learn - or not! - to do right by the innately good.

I haven’t spoken as much on social media about Ryan as I have about other of my new clients. Maybe because he’s this famous actor dude that people come up to and go “are you King George” when we’re brunching at Sarabeth’s!  But yeah, I’m damn proud of WINDERS, and honored to have worked with Ryan on getting this one out into the world.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

2021 Oscars Live Blog

11:30 PM Mine not to reason why.  If you read my 3400 words on this blog from before the Oscars, you’ll see that I am mostly happy with the things that won and the things that did not. But it was a weird evening.  The dry section in the middle was extremely dry. The beginning was extremely fresh because it was like no Oscars since I can remember, and I can remember back to things like the years when Chariots of Fire or Raiders were nominees, and I was watching in the TV room of the house I grew up in.  The ending was extremely odd.  But I watch most of all for the actual winners and losers.  I love every frame of Nomadland, and it won for Best Picture, every frame love that movie like I do every frame of Barry Lyndon.  The movies I liked least were Mank and Ma Rainey, and Mank won only in technical categories that it had an argument for winning, even in the photography category where it wasn’t my choice. Ma Rainey won some small awards, but not for the acting categories where I think there were better performances that were rewarded. My biggest disappointment is in the Supporting Actor category, where I’d have loved to see Paul Raci, but still Sound of Metal had a deserving spotlight including an award in a very competitive Editing category.  But, that ending.

11:16 PM: And no complaints on Anthony Hopkins.

11:15 PM OK! There was a lot of talk about Viola Davis winning for Ma Rainey, and I just couldn’t see another person winning Best Actress other than Frances McDormand or Carey Mulligan.  And I shan’t complain that it is McDormand.

11:12 PM Nomadland

11:09. But, Nomadland.  I love this movie, and it isn’t often that the movie I love most takes home the Best Picture trophy.  See Nomadland.  See it where you can soak in every image of every frame, every sound, every choice made by Chloe Zhao as s the director, every bit of modesty in Frances McDormand’s performance. Nomadland is special.

11:08. OK. That’s an interesting approach.

11:01 PM Did I miss the acting categories, or are they doing some weird thing of presenting the Best Picture nominees and then sandwiching in two more awards before presenting the award?  Weird...

10:56 PM Is this the first year that the In Memoriam has been segregated by the people who got one second and the people who got two seconds?

10:47 PM On the other hand I just got to see Glenn Close dancing away her sorrows over a record-tying 8th look with 0 wins in the acting categories.

10:45 PM If I need to endure Oscar trivia it should be at a bar where I can get a free hard cider for answering the question.

10:43 PM Since I’m doing a film-related live blog, a shout-out to Sean O’Connell, whose book RELEASE THE SNYDER CUT came out with perfect timing as a the Snyder Cut was releasing.  Sean spent his week before the Oscars doing some great get interviews for his next book WITH GREAT POWER, a history of Spider Man on film, which will be published in 2022.  

10:40 PM the noise in the room at Union Station seems at its loudest for the Best Song winners. I feel sorry for the people in Sweden who are up at this hour of the morning to not win an Oscar.

10:32 PM I will never complain to have Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross winning for Best Score, and better for Soul, which I didn’t see, than from Mank, sharing the award with Jon Batiste. Reznor and Ross, The Social Network. I need for a NY repertory house to give me an opportunity to enjoy The Social Network again.  

10:26 PM This is the first weekend since the pandemic where two movies have done significant opening weekend business, with both Demon Slayer and Mortal Kombat over $15M. My viewing this weekend was the pleasant Together Together, which is the first indie/art movie to have gotten an actual coordinated release post-pandemic, with reviews in the papers and time for theatres to prepare for showing it, and the Sat night screenings a little introduction from the director and a post-move taped Zoom with the director and two leads. Bit by bit it’s coming back, but it’s a little like going back to the beach house after a long winter away and having a lot of work to do to spiff it up for the season.

10:23 PM

10:18 PM Another small surprise. Did any of the Oscar preview articles I read tout Sound of Metal in the editing category?  This was a hard category, though, with all sorts of good movies contending. Very nice acceptance speech.

10:12 PM I more liked than loved when I saw In The Heights on Broadway, but I am eagerly awaiting the movie version on June 11. I’ve seen trailers many times, and now many different trailers with a new one coming into theatres recently that has a little more plot focus and now this one on the Oscars, and it hasn’t yet lost its appeal, its ability to get me to look up from my iPad and watch.  I am eager to see this movie on the biggest screen I can, hopefully in a glorious Dolby Atmos sound mix.

10:08 PM WTF? In fairness, Mank is strongest in categories like cinematography, but this is still an upset, taking the prize over Joshua James Richards for Nomadland.  And I loved every frame of Nomadland while, again, Mank I mostly watched the insides of my eyelashes.

10:07 PM Glenn Close ties Peter O’Toole for a a record eight losses of an acting award.  Chloe Zhao the first woman of color to win for Director.

10:04 PM I saw enough of Mank in between long stretches of “resting my eyes” to appreciate that it did have some achievement in production design, and the score was also excellent. So, sure. Give Mank an award.  It’s still a hot overrated mess of a movie. I hate this as much as I shall forever love David Fincher’s The Social Network.

10:02 PM Seconding @justincchang

10:00 PM A few minutes ago there was an ad for Google Meets. Don’t believe them. Google Meets is to Zoom what Bing is to Google.

9:57 PM Glenn Close is looking touched a little watching the acceptance speech, but she’s lost out on so many Oscars, but Hillbilly Elegy wasn’t the moment this year.  I can see Glenn Close reaming out her grandson in the car, and I can see Yuh-Jung Youn looking crestfallen after the fire, or simply being a grandmother in the family’s home. It’s a nice moment for the evening.

9:55 PM Yuh-Jung Youn for Supporting Actress.  The idea of her winning has grown on me over the course of the last several hours.

9:51 PM The family’s left to prepare for the work day or get ready for travel home tomorrow, so now it’s just me in my hotel room.  Last Oscars I was also in a hotel room in DC, in the before time, with tasty treats from Bakeshop in Arlington VA and fond memories of meals with David Louis Edelman and R.R. Virdi.  Aaaaah, the before times.  Back to being me, Oscar, some very good mini black and white cookies from Costco, and the apple strudels that will likely be offered to the hotel front office staff in the morning.

9:38 PM The “little bit dry” that Bryce Moore mentioned is becoming more apparent as the evening goes on.  Nothing dry about Bryce’s Perfect Place to Die, which is coming in August. Some energy missing from the festivities.

9:23 PM They’re showing clips!

9:19 PM I just had to explain to my nephew what a dot matrix printer is/was.  Hard to believe that the technology could have come and gone so very very quickly. Kind of like how I expect aa movie like Mank to sink out of view.

9:00 PM The story of how I care to fall in love with Chloe Zhao is kind of embarrassing.  I was going to see 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm with Nick Martell, and never dreamt that it would be sold out on a Monday night.  But, it was!  And I hadn’t gotten advance tickets.  Seeking an alternative, I suggested we see The Rider, which sounded like maybe it would be kind of meh but had gotten such reviews.  So we saw it on a teeny screen at a teeny art house multiplex.  And we loved The Rider.  And that was how I came to eagerly anticipate Nomadland.  

8:59 PM No surprise that Chloe Zhao won for Nomadland, but it makes me immensely happy/

8:54 PM with all due respect to the MPTF workers, when this speech is going on for so long it’s kind of reminding me why I tell authors to watch the head-and-shoulders gestures.  The best way to avoid going overboard is to try not to use them at all, and we’re at that stage with letting the acceptance speeches drone on for forever.

8:45 PM not a fan of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, but Ann Roth has been designing great costumes for about as long as I’ve been alive, and I think I read that she is, at the age of 89, the oldest person so far to go home with an Oscar statue. Check out her filmography. It is the definition of illustrious.

8:31 PM & the best part of Daniel Kaluuya’s win is seeing the looks on the faces of his family members in London, something that would have gotten lost in the large scale of the traditional ceremony at the Dolby Theatre.  This evening is such a nice “if live gives you lemonade...” moment, for the first half hour.  LIke, the acceptance speeches are going on, but it’s nice for a half hour.  We’ll see how it goes for another two-and-a-half.

8:28 PM My nephew points out that we aren’t getting clips for the Supporting Actor category, but we are getting some personal notes which take excellent advantage of the intimate Union Station setting for this year’s Oscars. And I like it.

8:22 PM No surprise that Another Round won, but Quo Vadis, Aida is the better film.  I can’t rave enough about Quo Vadis, Aida. where you can read my mini-review, and why I am not super happy to see the glorification of alcohol in Another Round getting an Oscar.  There’s nothing to complain about as a piece of filmmaking, but...

8:17 PM I liked the Expedia ad.

8:12 PM Not sure I was expecting The Father to win for Adopted Screenplay, but I don’t mind that it has.  I mean, Florian Zeller is up at 2am in Paris France to get his Oscar.  Better he should get it than just pose in his tux.  And Christopher Hampton at 1am in the UK

8:09 PM Glad there was no orchestra to drown out that nice acceptance speech from Emerald.

8:07 PM As I mentioned in my pre-Oscar 3400 words, Emerald Fennell kind of had to win for Promising Young Woman. It’s a great script, full of fun with dark undertones and navigating shoals and shoals and shoals.  If I were ranking the nominated movies that you should see, this is right at the top of the list.  Promising Young Woman.

8:06 PM There’s this belief that Hollywood’s privileged, and it’s kind of true, but the intro for the Original Screenplay is making it clear that people have to work their way in.

8:03 PM “Our love of movies helped to get us through.” Very true for me.  So very, very true.  

8:00 PM I didn’t get to watch a lot of the red carpet, but I’m impressed with what I’ve seen of how they’re doing this.  Actual people in an actual place with an actual red carpet feel.  Good first impression.

7:58 PM We’re doing this!  I’ve got company, which I haven’t had for an Oscars in decades probably, but we’re doing some live blog here.

Oscar 2021 - way too many coming attractions!!!

The Oscars are happening today.  

And I’ve read many an article or analysis, which I think generally true, that the world doesn’t very much care, and that the ratings are going to plummet as they have for other award shows, and even for a lot of sporting events.

But, I care!  

I’m not sure what I’ll be doing for my live blog.  If all goes well, I am going to have some fully vaccinated family members joining me in my (very large!) hotel room for at least part of the evening, and might not be able to give my full attention to the posting.  So I’m putting a little more effort into the pre-show this year.

In spite of and because of the pandemic, I ended up seeing as many or more of the nominated films as in a typical year, all in theatres.  I went some six months in 2020 where I saw only one movie, a fan favorite welcome back of Superman: The Movie at a theatre in Connecticut that opened for around three weeks in June before closing its doors to allow the cobwebs more time to cob, and which has yet to reopen its doors. That was it, from March 8 until mid-September.  But, once theatres were able to reopen in NJ and CT, and I was able to start going, I realized, putting it simply, that I needed to go.  I say that unapologetically. I went three months of 2020 without having an in person conversation beyond the “conversation” at the check-out register.  And then another three months where I might have had a handful of days if that with an employee joining me in the office but were mostly more of the same.  That wasn’t sustainable.  I, my sanity, needed something, and hopping on the quite empty commuter trains to go to the quite empty movie theatres seemed safe enough.  I never dreamt that I would know when the hourly trains from Stamford were headed back to New York City.  And a few weeks later, theatres were allowed to reopen in New York State, outside of the five boroughs.  And I went.  Manchester, Stamford, White Plains, New Rochelle, Garden City, Westbury, Bellmore, Hoboken, Elizabeth, South Orange, Paramus, Red Bank.  I went, and I went, and I went, and I went some more. And when the theatres could finally reopen in New York City on March 5, the IFC Center had a “what we missed” series where I could fill in a lot of the blanks.

There are eight moves nominated for Best Picture, but I feel like there’s only one, and that’s Nomadland.  I’ve done a full review of that elsewhere, and I’ll add links to this post down the line.  It’s a beautiful movie on so many levels, and a movie that achieves greatness through modesty.  I’ve seen it three times, all on IMAX, and would happily see it again.  I saw it on a private screening, with one other couple in the IMAX, and on opening weekend with fewer than ten of us. 

Promising Young Woman was the consensus favorite of a three-movie blitz over Christmas, and the pre-shows I’ve read elsewhere call it, perhaps accurately, the nominee that’s lost the most from this weird year, where a conversation-starter of a movie was never able to get the conversation started.  It’s got a brilliant lead performance by Carey Mulligan.  It’s got a clever script.  It’s got some good supporting turns, especially by Bo Burnham who has as much a tight rope to act in the quiet supporting role as Mulligan does in the lead.  It’s a movie that’s of the moment but doesn’t drown in it.  It’s got an ending that’s uplifting without losing the internal truth of the lead character.  Emerald Fennell, the writer and director, nailed this one, and is deservedly nominated in both categories.  If Nomadland were to lose, which would be a stunner, this is the movie I’d wish to see it lose to.

The Christmas blitz also included Wonder Woman 84 and News of the World, all as part of private theatre rentals. Which deserve a mention.  Cinemark was the first chain I saw doing these, allowing up to 20 people in for a private viewing for prices that went into the mid double figures for off hours oldies in markets with less expensive tickets to $200 for new movies, and I think these covered a good chunk of the payroll at a lot of Cinemark locations.  AMC then acted like they had invented the idea, and had prices approaching $400 at better performing locations in the New York market.  I feel a little uncomfortable about the idea, how people with a spare $150 could see a movie more safely than people without, but even now as business is starting to pick up there are some Cinemark multiplexes with five or more screens used solely for the viewing parties.

New of the World was perfectly fine, and Wonder Woman 84 I both liked more than expected (for me, the first movie underperformed against the reviews and expectations I had gong in while the sequel overperformed) and loathed for some of the laziness of the script and film-making.  

But, getting back to the Best Picture candidates:

Mank is godawful.  A great score (nominated!) and great photography (nominated) in service of a dull script and dull acting.  You want some David Fischer, rewatch The Social Network.

The Father is one of the many movies I saw at unplanned and unwanted private screenings.  I didn’t want to go theatres with too many people in them, but the number of private showings for really good movies...  It’s really good, with amazing acting, but I had to work harder to understand it than I really would have wanted.  If you’re a movie critic/reviewer you might well have gotten a copy of the screenplay or other press materials that make it more comprehensible, but it’s a movie that would be rewarding by repeat viewings for anyone else without justifying going back for seconds.  

Judas and the Black Messiah is an energetically made film, well-acted, but it’s a movie that tells me a lot about how Fred Hampton died without telling me enough about how he lived to invest me in how he died.

I’ve seen movies about failing farms for a long time now, like Places from the Heart with Sally Field in 1984.  Minari doesn’t add enough to the genre to justify its being a Best Picture winner.

Sound of Metal is a deserving nominee but not a deserving winner.  There’s a slow patch in the middle where we need to understand a little more about the lead character than the script allows us to.  Riz Ahmed deserves his Best Actor nomination in part because of his success in acting the part beyond what’s on the page well enough that I could almost not have noticed the  level of remove, but it’s there.

The Trial of the Chicago Seven is fine or better in lots of different ways.  I liked it, I’d recommend it, I don’t mind seeing it on the Best Picture ballot, but there’s no way I’m rooting for it.

Best Director, just like Best Picture, it’s either Chloe Zhao for Nomadland or Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman.  Thomas Vinterberg was nominated for Another Round, a Scandinavian movie about a bunch of drunk dudes, without the movie being nominated for Best Picture.

In Best Actress, there’s a sense that it might go to Viola Davis for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.  I’d again prefer Nomadland (Frances McDormand) or Promising Young Woman (Carey Mulligan).  This is one of the most problematic characters for me. Maybe it’s more the writing than the acting, but I think Vanessa Kirby’s character in Pieces of a Woman was a hollowness at the core of the movie, and I’d happily have her out of the category and Julia Garner from The Assistant in place of Kirby.  And I’d happily see Zendaya from Malcolm and Marie in place of Viola Davis.  Malcolm and Marie is indulgent and navel-gazing a little and has characters that aren’t the most pleasant, but it’s a beautifully photographed movie with really good acting and it’s thought provoking and gets into its characters.  It can be a bit of a dodge to use the “but what would you leave out” defense when someone says this person or movie was unjustly robbed of a nomination, but this is a category where I can hands-down identify performances that were overlooked in movies that were overlooked.

Best Actor is tough this year.  Riz Ahmed does the exact opposite of Vanessa Kirby.  He takes an underwritten role and turns it into an award-worthy performance in Sound of Metal.  Anthony Hopkins in The Father is a master class.  And then there’s Chadwick Bozeman in Ma Rainey, and there’s nothing about that performance that makes me think of Chadwick Bozeman over my overall “meh” toward the movie.

I rested my eyes through too much of Mank to evaluate Amanda Seyfried.  Of the performances I was awake for, I’m team Maria Bakalova.  Comedy is hard, and she is subsumed completely into the somewhat scripted and somewhat not comedy of Boras Subsequent Moviefilm.    For Supporting Actor, I was surprised to sit down with the ballot and realize I most wanted Paul Rici to win for Sound of Metal.  He’s the heart of the movie in so many ways, visions of the past and visions of the future and the paths that Riz Ahmed has. I can see him on the screen as I type, see the words and the signs and the face I saw when I went to the movie seven months ago.  

Original screenplay has to be Promising Young Woman.

Adopted screenplay, much as I like Nomadland this could go to The Father, or to Borat Subsequent Moviefilm or to The White Tiger, and I would be every bit as happy as if it goes to Nomadland.  I liked The White Tiger a lot more than the critical consensus, and I’m mostly happy to see that it got on the Oscar ballot.  

I am going to be the only person in the world rooting for Over the Moon to win in Animated Feature.

Documentary Feature, I’ll go with Collective.  I thought of seeing Time, but I can’t bring myself to.  All of the reviews and the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes and all the everything else, I just can’t.

I did see Crip Camp.  A lot of the pioneering work for disability advocacy was before I was politically aware.  A lot of time is spent on a sit-in during the Carter administration when I was a teenager, and it passed me by.  I’m interested in that history.  But the movie wants to say that all of that happened as a result of people going to a summer camp in the Catskills where they spent their nights as teenagers learning and plotting what would become the advocacy that led ultimately to the ADA, thus the title.  But there’s no support for that thesis at all.  What the movie actually tells us:  if you were a disabled teen with enough support at home in the 1960s or early 1970s that your parents could get you to a summer camp (for many of them, a summer camp way far out of state) for disabled teenagers, you had a stronger chance of having the structure and support that you could, in the late 1970s, participate in protests and sit-ins.  The existence of the movie is a feat all by itself because a lot of the main participants in events forty years ago aren’t with us today, but I wish the movie could have found a way to be more about the events, even looking a little at the events from the other side, from the POV of people in the Carter administration and some now/then on how they feel about slow-walking regulations, rather than spending as much time as it does on the thin reed of its premise.

Collective starts with searing and difficult-to-watch as-it’s-happening footage from within a Romanian night club where dozens of people died when a fire engulfed the premises starting a stampeded to closed and blocked exits.  It’s one of those stories that keeps repeating.  Happy Land in the Bronx, the Kentucky night club decades ago.  But it’s not so much about that. It’s discovered afterwards that the hospitals were using diluted disinfectants.  That burn victims were being sent to in-country hospitals without burn units that were supposed to have super duper burn units, that the care was so bad patients had maggots in them.  All of which the government would rather not deal with, until it’s forced to appoint a young public health advocate to reform from within,which lasts only until the next election when the government is booted out in favor or a return to le ancien regime.It’s a documentary about a great many things in under two hours, full of heroes and villains, twists and turns, deeply resonant to counties and political systems far away from Romania’s.  Quite excellent.

MLK/FBI is missing from the category, which is a shame.

Collective is also nominated in International Feature, where I’ve seen four of the five films, a much better percentage than usual.  Better Days is the film I didn’t see.  The Man Who Sold His Skin is the film that has no chance of winning.  

Another Round — I don’t know what to say about this.  I avoided seeing it for a while.  I don’t like movies about alcoholics and alcoholism, which can’t resist either glorifying something that should never be glorified, or asking us to wallow deep in the misery of it all, and this movie’s about a handful of long-time friends, teaching at the same high school, who set out to prove a thesis that we all function better with a moderate but not over the top blood alcohol level.  Great idea!  At least for me, this is like the greatest of great ideas - NOT!!!! - for a movie.  But as well as it’s done in the Oscars, nominated both here and for Best Director, I went.  If you want to ignore the scenes where one of the teachers does his best teaching ever while under the influence of alcohol, it avoids some of the glorification, but you can’t ignore those scenes.  It does show all of the main characters having some problems with work, family or friends, and one of them the problems get to be more than just a little serious, so it doesn’t show the behavior as being without risk or consequence of any sort.  But we get to the end of the movie and it’s suggesting alcohol as a fountain of youth.  Really?  I can’t separate myself enough from the morality of the movie to want to see it on an Oscar ballot, let alone winning.

Quo Vadis, Aida? is the movie I’d like to see taking the International Feature category.  Jasmila Zbanic wrote, produced and directed this searing movie about a genocidal attack by Serbian general Ratko Mladic, where over 8,000 men theoretically under the protection of the UN is Srebrenica were separated from their families, murdered, and buried in mass graves.  The lead, played by Jasna Duricic, is a UN translator trying to save her husband and sons.  It’s a real world version of the classic cliffhanger of the walls closing in, only there’s no escape hatch.  The lead performance and the movie are both absolutely top notch. The lead character’s a school teacher.  The movie could have ended with one of the massacres, the camera outside on a piece of military equipment studiously avoiding a view of what we know’s happening inside the building we’ve just left, but it goes on to show the main character rebuilding her life, kind of.  Back in school, teaching another generation.  But what’s she teaching them?  What is there to teach at all?  

Original Score - the best thing about Mank is the score.  James Newton Howard does a good one for News of the World.  Terrance Blanchard does a really good one for Da 5 Bloods.

Sound, I’ve seen only three of the movies.  Haven’t streamed Greyhound, didn’t see Soul.  Everyone thinks Sound of Metal will win for a movie that’s as much about the absence of sound as its presence, and I’m fine with that.

I don’t give a crap about make-up.  The category includes two movies I haven’t seen, two I slept through, and one (Hillbilly Elegy) where the make-up is so over the top...

Costume Design, a lot of the same movies and a lot of the same thoughts.

There are some beautiful movies in the Cinematography category.  Chicago 7 is nominated in part for managing to merge the real of the demonstrations with the shots from the cameraman, I would expect.  But if anything wins other than Nomadland, then (like Billy Joel(), I’m gonna start the fire.  Joshua James Richardson is named Joshua, after all, and Joshua deserves always to win.  But I saw this movie on IMAX thinking it was a little bit silly to head out to Paramus to see a movie that would open more widely in a few weeks on screens other than IMAX, because it’s just this little art movie about someone living in a camper.  But then, I watched the movie.  It’s a parade of glorious imagery, from the close-ups of Frances McDormand’s face to the desert glow at sunset to the Pacific coastal to an inside of a luncheonette counter at Wall Drug.  It’s rapturously filmed.  

Let The Father have Production Design.  I didn’t pick up on all the subtleties that the critics with their liner notes etc. etc. did, but from what I read there’s a lot of subtle stuff going on in this one.  I’d rather Mank take its award for Score.  Ma Rainey doesn’t have good production design; it reeks of the back lot.  News of the World and Tenet are fine choices as well.

The Father also makes sense for Film Editing, but all the movies in this category are quite well done.

VIsual Effects, Tenet.

Even this year, I decided not to spend hours sitting for the short features, when I never see them in non-pandemic years.

The LA Times has several good articles today on the Oscars.

One article I read said it’s a shame that the Oscars are giving us all of these depressing movies when we want fun, but Hollywood doesn’t make very many good fun movies any more.  The fun movies are almost entirely bludgeoning SFX spectaculars, and then when Hollywood does come up with a glorious piece of fun like The Prom, a lot of the critics dump on it.  But there’s something hopeful about Sound of Metal and Nomadland and Minari, even though they wear their dark well.  There’s something truthful about The Father.  Judas and the Black Messiah and The Trial of the Chicago 7 are stories worth telling and retelling. 

And Promising Young Woman takes the movie that isn’t supposed to be fun, that’s been made the no fun way, and makes it quite a bit of disorienting fun.  I’m thinking I should see it again.

And folks, the movies will be back.  

I wasn’t worried when WarnerMedia announced it was putting all its movies on HBO Max at the same time they went into theatres.  To me, it meant there would for sure by 17 movies with major studio booking heading into movie theatres in 2021.  There are some changes ahead for the film business.  There are going to be fewer places to see movies.  The South Orange cinema I visited a few times is closed.  The Landmark 57 West in New York City is closed for good.  The Mazza Galleria in DC, that’s gone.  More of this to come, for sure — more of this to come.

But I love going to the movies.  I’m not the only person who loves going to the movies.  It’s about the “going.”. My TV set and my iPad aren’t going anywhere, and aren’t going anywhere (two uses, purposefully).

Maybe it will be only 10 million people tonight watching whatever the Oscars have to bring, but I saw some great movies over the past year, and I can’t wait to see who wins.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

On Being (& Becoming) Grand - Charlaine Harris

On the occasions of Charlaine Harris being named a 2021 Grand Master honoree by the Mystery Writers of America...

It was a Cub game.  The Mets and the Cubs at Shea Stadium in 1989, when you could bring a backpack into the ballpark, and my backpack would have a manuscript to read, when we still read those on paper.  That’s when I remember reading REAL MURDERS by Charlaine Harris, during a rain delay.

Charlaine was looking for an agent.  She had successfully placed two books on her own in the early 1980s, SWEET AND DEADLY and A SECRET RAGE, to the legendary Ruth Hapgood at Houghton Mifflin, and then taken a few years off to when she had her first two children.  A then-client of mine, Barbara Paul, recommended that Charlaine get in touch with me, and so it was that I found myself reading the first Aurora Teagarden mystery, and I was very much in love.

Not to knock the idea that it helps to write a good novel, which REAL MURDERS was and is, and do well by the people you work with, which Charlaine Harris has done for every moment of a long career, but there’s still a lot of fortune involved in the successful writing career, and for myself, Charlaine, and Aurora Teagarden, fortune came wearing the name of Janet Hutchings.  Janet is now, and has been for many years, the editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, but she was then the mystery editor for Walker & Company, a small-ish family owned publisher with a deeply creditable mystery list, and she was the only editor -- the only! -- to make an offer on REAL MURDERS.  $4,000.

I was crushed.  I had taken this wonderful novel out with much enthusiasm and great expectations, and all I had to show for it was a $4,000 offer.  But my boss at the time, Scott Meredith, sent me one of his famous scrawls on 3x5 note paper to tell me that it wasn’t easy bringing an author back into the market after a several year absence, and that I had done good.  And I reckon, with the passage of time, that this was a true statement.

Janet left Walker after buying the second Aurora Teagarden novel, and Charlaine and I didn’t cotton as much to Janet’s replacement.  We went looking for a new home for the third Aurora Teagarden.  And this time, fortune came wearing the name of Susanne Kirk.  Susanne edited a mystery list for Scribner, another family-owned publishing company with a rich and storied and even more deeply creditable mystery list. She wasn’t sure about picking up the Aurora Teagarden series, which had been with a smaller publisher with modest sales.  I can’t say that I persuaded her.  She told me later that it was Charlaine herself who did the trick, charming the room at a mystery convention, that told Susanne she should have some Charlaine of her own.  

And then Scribner was engulfed and devoured by Simon & Schuster.  Susanne hung on for several more years, but big publishers like Simon & Schuster don’t enjoy publishing (not then, in the mid 1990s, not now, not for a very very long time) the steady but modestly profitable books of the world, and the mystery list Susanne edited turned much more heavily toward the lottery ticket approach, squeezing out Charlaine and the Aurora Teagarden series.

This time around, fortune came wearing the name of Elizabeth Story, a young editor at St. Martin’s whom I’d met a few times during a monthly networking night at the Cedar Tavern on University Place.  Elizabeth ended up leaving publishing, and the Cedar ended up leaving the world entirely, but that connection helped in selling SHAKESPEARE’S LANDLORD, the first of the new and rather darker Lily Bard series of cozy mysteries by Charlaine, and after Elizabeth left St. Martin’s we ended up in the care of the (then very young) Kelley Ragland.  

I have always been a fan of the Aurora Teagarden books, dating back to that rain delay at Shea Stadium, and I spent a good chunk of this period of time trying to get Kelley to pick up some more books in the series.  This was not easy.  The Lily Bard books had their level of success, and it was not intuitive that the series that had already been dropped by two publishers deserved to have a third.  But, I persisted.  The Aurora Teagarden series moved to St. Martin’s, and ended up selling better than the Lily Bard novels.  Never bet against Aurora Teagarden.

It was also around this time that Charlaine made the decision to do something entirely new.  She felt she was mired in the midlist, and this wasn’t where she wanted to be.  And with some inspiration from Laurell K. Hamilton and Tanya Huff and Buffy guiding her muse, she wrote a novel called SOUTHERN FRIED VAMPIRES which introduced a very very different character named Sookie Stackhouse.  And boy, was it different.  I wasn’t even such a big fan, but this time it was Charlaine who persisted.  We agreed to send the book along to Dean James, then an important bookseller at Houston’s Murder by the Book and now very well known as Miranda James, and accept his verdict.  Dean liked SOUTHERN FRIED VAMPIRES, so I took it out to market.

These vampires didn’t want to sell themselves.  It wasn’t for lack of a good marketing letter.  In a remarkable bit of prescience, I said that the combination of Charlaine’s loyal base in the mystery field with the genre-crossing merriment that had made Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake into a force to be reckoned with would work its magic on book buyers.  But, nobody was buying it.  We had one offer from a very small publisher that I persuaded Charlaine to turn down; it was very one-sided for a book that would probably succeed more on the basis of Charlaine’s name on the front cover than the publisher’s name on the spine.  

Finally, I sent it off to John Morgan, a young editor at Ace (Laurell/Anita’s publisher), who was starting to acquire.  I could have sent it to Ace sooner, but the established editors sometimes had slow response times.  And it worked.  John liked SOUTHERN FRIED VAMPIRES.  He was able to get his boss, Ginjer Buchanan, on board.  And we got a two-book offer for less money per book than Charlaine was getting at St. Martin’s.  Not the most auspicious sale for a book Charlaine had hoped would take her out of the midlist.

But we got a new title you might all be familiar with.  DEAD UNTIL DARK.  We got a great cover.  And lo and behold, and exactly as I had promised in my marketing letter, we got buy-in to the book both from Charlaine’e established mystery readership and from the Laurell K. Hamilton fans, and DEAD UNTIL DARK sold, and sold, and sold, and hasn’t stopped selling for twenty years.  So well and so quickly that Charlaine was almost immediately offered a contract for the third and fourth Sookie Stackhouse novels, and then when the second book was published for the fifth, sixth and seventh Sookie novels -- the first time in over twenty years that Charlaine had a big enough advance that she could feel truly comfortable as a writer.

The rest of the story, you probably know.  Or a pretty good chunk of it.

What you might not know:  TRUE BLOOD came out when Alan Ball was early for a dentist appointment, and came across DEAD UNTIL DARK while browsing the shelves of a nearby Barnes & Noble.

Charlaine’s one of the very few authors to have not one, or not two, but three different series make it to television. (So far…)  I sometimes feel like a bystander to her success, but not when it comes to the Aurora Teagarden series on Hallmark.  Just like at St. Martin’s, I advocated for the series that had been around a time or two (the creator of Simon & Simon was going to write a pilot for CBS in the 1990s, before a management shuffle left the project orphaned even before the contract was finalized), and the book-to-film agents at APA, Debbie Deuble Hill and Steve Fisher, took my words to heart, and found producer Jim Head, who packaged things for Hallmark.  The 15th Hallmark movie is wrapping up production right about now.

There are so many instances where fortune has played a major role in Charlaine’s success, but it’s of no small import that she’s forever displayed great courage in directing her career.  She put Aurora Teagarden aside to launch the Lily Bard books.  She killed off Aurora’s husband.  She stopped writing Lilly Bard novels when she felt she’d ran out of things to say.  She put an end to the Sookie Stackhouse series, and went on to start two more, the Midnight Texas and Gunnie Rose novels.  She took a big gamble on starting the Sookie books.  

It’s only with the passage of time that I’ve come to truly appreciate how fortunate I’ve been to work with Charlaine.  My agency has in many ways grown along with her, with some high stakes discussions that were nerve-wracking at the time because I’d never done them before, but as I’ve done them more and more have realized that they could have been even more fraught.  

You don’t get to be a Grand Master without winning the respect of your peers. When you’ve been told a thousand times, as Charlaine has, that it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person, it can seem a little artificial, but this award is the moment when you realize it’s entirely true.

Charlaine’s been loyal. For all her success, you can still go to a convention and see her hanging out with a lot of the same people today as she did thirty years ago, only the surrounding crowd has gotten so much larger.  I’ve been blessed to get to work with other authors like Toni L P Kelner and Elaine Viets in no small part because of Charlaine’s good word.

Charlaine’s been there for her family, and they’ve been there for her. 

And all along the way, I’ve simply known how lucky I’ve been to be in the Charlaine Harris business.  In the mid and late 1990s, I wasn’t prosperous, not by a long shot, but finding the money to be in DC for Malice Domestic weekend was always important to me.  I wanted to be there for Charlaine.  I’ve always known.

I consider the Grand Master honors to be the most significant a genre author has a decent chance of receiving.  The Nobel and Pulitzer don’t often get awarded to cozy mysteries or fantasies.  You can leave any given Bouchercon with any of three different awards, or collect a Hugo and Nebula and World Fantasy withiin the space of a few months.  I don’t know in my career if I’ll get to have another Grand Master.  There are but a handful from the major writer’s organizations in a year.

I’m so grateful to the Mystery Writers of America for awarding Charlaine Harris a 2021 Grand Master honor, and for recognizing not just what she’s done, but who she is is.  And even more to the point, I’m honored that I’ve gotten to hang out with Charlaine for thirty one years and counting -- to go to the Real Murders club with Aurora Teagarden, working out at Body Time with Lily Bard, getting creeped out by Manfred, checking into the hotel at Midnight Crossroads, wandering across the dangerous landscape of Texoma. Being there as Sookie helps Hunter to make his way into the world, and as Anne DeWitt comes to the aid of her charges.  And always, Bobo Winthrop.  And always, always, Grand.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

On Doing Better...

 One of the great joys of Fantasy novels is the opportunity to experience the way characters evolve and grow, and to see that process demonstrated through the choices they make. The characters we love best are those whose sense of personal responsibility expands ever outward as they recognize their own power to effect change in the world – to aid someone in distress, to right wrongs. 

We love this journey, in part, because it reflects our best hopes for ourselves. Most of us know that too often we narrow our own sense of responsibility, rationalizing that we are limited in what we can or even should do in our lives to help others when they need us. We call it being realistic or practical. Usually, it is an excuse for cowardice.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the limits of my own sense of responsibility in the context of my reflections on a moment where I failed to act when I should have.

As some of you reading this already know, in 2009 I hosted a JABberwocky dinner at a World Fantasy Convention in San Jose. At that dinner, a friend and valued colleague, Janci Patterson, was subjected to unwanted and unacceptable behavior by another guest at that dinner, which made her deeply uncomfortable. 

I did nothing but watch as one of my authors made comments that made her feel awful at an event that I put on.

I wish I could precisely reconstruct my thinking on that night. Why didn’t I intervene? It wasn’t that I couldn’t empathize. From early in life I had plenty of personal experience -- the harshness of middle school or the awkward high school parties -- with the pain and discomfort that can be caused by other people’s bad behavior. 

On that night in San Jose I should have known how wrong this thing I was witnessing was. And yet I did nothing to stop it. 

I have no clear answer for why I made that bad choice except to say that somehow I determined it was not my responsibility. 

And, in doing so, I failed a crucial test. 

I have apologized to Janci for my failure. But no apology is sufficient unless it is coupled with an honest effort to change.

So that is what I am committing to in writing this. I have made a promise to myself and to any who read this that I will expand my sense of responsibility, as I hope we have all learned to do over the past year or two. 

I don’t expect that doing so will be easy. But that is what taking responsibility means and that is what I pledge myself to do. It is part of what I believe I owe to Janci and, as importantly, to myself in my own efforts to be the kind of person I wish to be.