Thursday, May 26, 2011

Bishop Jim Swilley Comes Out

The protagonist in Delux is an Episcopalian priest who comes out and leaves the church.

One night in the car, I happened to hear Bishop Swilley on NPR in an interview about coming out. Later I found the video below in which Swilley comes out to his congregation. He's a great speaker and he anticipates all the arguments he expects about being closeted and being homosexual. It's a very moving ... well, sermon, I guess.

Watch live streaming video from bishopjimswilley at

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Killing a Character

I had this great idea to write a post about killing a character. Then I realized I'd already written it.

So, I'm cheating in this post. Just a link to the original post on my other blog.

Since this blog is also about thanking the people who are helping me write Delux, I want to thank (again) my sister-in-law Anne Damron for helping me find Alex Peabody, the Aquatic Specialist & Armory Manager for the California State Parks. And another thanks to Alex. Also, to Stephen Halasz who pointed out the difference between surfing and big wave surfing in the first place.

Also, here's some help on killing a character, if you really have to.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Art Research

My friend Rabih says that if he can make readers believe the Brooklyn Bridge is in Paris, he's writing good fiction.

So, why research a fiction book? The simple answer is, I'm not as good at writing fiction as Rabih.

I researched three topics while writing Delux: art, religion, and writing. Not that I was stupid about these topics, but I wanted to write with some authority, as it were, about concepts like the latest art craze and the motivations for a gay priest to leave the church.

Research takes many forms. Let's consider my art research.

Practitioners provide the practical insights.

I started writing Delux when I was hanging around with Edmundo de Marchena, a sculptor and video artist. I witnessed Edmundo create a jiggly piece called Homage to the Sexually Compulsive. It started when a museum accepted Edmundo's proposal for the piece and ended, months later, when all the parts came together the day before opening night. I learned how one artist comes up with and executes a concept, the importance of studio space, the relationship between an artist and the art world.

Jody Jock is another San Francisco artist who let me peak into his creative process. Jody makes exquisite posed photo studies, mostly of young San Francisco men. He's been kind enough to tell me about finding and posing models, his transition from film to digital photography, the ongoing struggle to market his work.

My friend Bob Van Breda has been transitioning from businessman to artist. He's allowed me to make videos of his work and his creative process. Our quarterly computer-and-dinner meetings are therapy for both of us as we work through our respective projects. A pair of my shoes are hanging on his shoe tree in Sonoma.

Another person who helped enormously was Chris Perez, the owner of Ratio 3, a gallery in San Francisco. Chris took time to give me feedback on an early draft of Delux, on the chapter about CalArts and opening night. I got to hang out at Ratio 3 and see how Chris deals with artists and collectors, the schmooze, the sales process, the money, finding and developing talent, shipping art to shows all over the world. Plus Chris taught me to cook a really great pasta sauce with pancetta.

On and off, I've peaked into the life of a collector with Byron Meyer. Byron always tells me he's not a collector. He hangs plenty of great art on his wall, though. His collection reflects his interest in local artists. He has pieces by the likes of Jeff Koons, but the works that spoke to me were by local artists like David Parks. Hearing Byron tell stories about the art world is a treat, a who's who of collectors, curators, and artists.

Galleries and museums have stories to tell.

I've always loved going to art shows. Art collections and curated shows tell stories, stories about art, about the artists, stories about history, stories about the collectors and curators. I visited shows frequently while writing, from small galleries like Ratio 3 to large museums.

Small galleries are the hardest to keep track of. I have to search them out, get to know the gallerist, find the galleries that share my interests. But the small galleries serve up the treasures that no one has found.

Large museums are good about marketing and explaining their exhibits. They have the resources to educate viewers, providing webpages, audio tours, and docents to help viewers learn about art.

Visiting galleries had other rewards. I went to the Beirut Art Center (as in Beirut, Lebanon) and met, of all people, Kara Walker. I'd read a New Yorker profile about her rise in the art world, and based one of the Delux characters on that profile. Sharing mezze afterwards with Kara and a group from the art center was like having dinner with a fictional character in real life.

Of course, I encourage everyone to visit art shows as much as they can, even if they aren't writing about art.

Reading about art is a good way to learn how to write about art.

Art books describe art, artistic process, and the experience an art piece creates. They also put art in some context. Reading them taught me how to describe art, and filled my characters with a wide range of opinions.

Here's a list of some art books I read while I was writing Delux:

  • Purposes of Art, by Albert Elsen. My mom audited art history courses from Elsen at Stanford. The book examines the role of art in society, its uses in religion, politics and commerce. It's the broadest overview of art on this list and, by far, the most thorough. It covers art through the 1980s.
  • The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa, by Michael Kimmelman. Nawaaz Ahmed gave me this book before he left for his MFA program. Nawaaz and I shared an interest in writing and art shows. This book is full of insights about contemporary art and artists. In each chapter, Kimmelman writes about an experience with art that shaped his life or his views.
  • Contemporary Art: A Very Short Introduction, by Julian Stallabrass. Very short and very informative.
  • Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness, by Chris Kraus. I found this series of essays about Los Angeles art around the turn of the millennium at Hennessey + Ingalls, a wonderful art and architecture book store in Santa Monica. It provided me a thoughtful and deliciously written behind-the-scenes look at Los Angeles and its art. Kraus has a way of working all your senses.
  • The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, by Leo Steinberg. Carol Hoidra turned me on to this quirky study of the representation of the penis of Jesus. So strange that it was completely engaging.
  • The End of Art, by Donald Kuspit. This book was turgid and ideological. I disliked it so much, I read it just to see if it would say at least one thing I could agree with. It also gave my characters some of their most pejorative views of the art world.

Soon I hope to add Delux to the list!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Product Placement

I use a lot of proper product and service names in Delux. One of my early draft readers, Jamie Bernstein, asked whether that was good idea. Another, Julie Butterfield, asked why the protagonist drives, of all cars, a Bentley.

One big problem with product names is longevity. Books only 30 or 40 years old with popular product names sometimes don't make sense now. Products and product names evolve rapidly. It's even hard to use phrases like "dial your number" that have technological implications. When was the last time anyone used a phone that had a dial?

On the other hand, the rapid advance of technology and, specifically, the Internet has required the invention of new words to describe entirely new products and services. Describing the product or service instead of using its name might provide better longevity, but at the expense of brevity.

"Google" is perhaps the most famous of these new words. "Google" is a variation of the word "googol," which is the name of the number defined as one with one hundred zeros following. In other words, a lot. Replacing the word "search" with the word "google" is perfectly acceptable now. For instance, "I googled 'Abe Lincoln' today." It sounds vaguely sexual when the subject is a proper noun.

Delux takes place at the advent of the Internet, when services like Google and Evite were introduced. "Google" seemed like a safe bet. I took a chance using the word "Evite," but even if people forget about the actual service, the name describes the utility and lets the reader know it's an online service.

Then there is "In-N-Out." Talk about vaguely sexual. But the In-N-Out product has religious connections that help a scene in the book. The description "burger joint" wasn't as loaded as "In-N-Out." Will In-N-Out exist in 100 years? Probably not, but it won't be hard for the reader to understand that it's a drive-through hamburger restaurant. If there are drive-through restaurants in 100 years.

Those are trade-offs of some of the brand names I used in Delux. I'm betting that the Internet will help Delux's longevity, especially if most unit sales turn out to be eBooks with links built in to explain the references. As a first time novelist, it's unlikely I'll negotiate product placement for the book. With eBooks, though, it possible to imagine product links and even advertising in completely new ways. Product names may be my new best friends.

But, hey, what about that Bentley.

The Bentley story comes from a Herb Caen piece I read growing up. Caen (re)told the story of the guy who runs off to Mexico with his girlfriend, and writes to his wife from the hotel, "Sell the Porsche and send me the money." The wife places an ad in the paper: "Porsche for sale. $5." You know the ending. That's before craigslist, of course.

I had a protagonist who needed a car. An important car. So I started re-working the Caen story. As I thought about special cars, I remembered driving around Los Angeles in a Bentley. It's fabulous and stupid. And people gaze. Then I thought about the name "Bentley." The first syllable. What other car would a gay protagonist drive?