Wednesday, March 03, 2010


The Past Isn’t Past

When I sat down, after over a decade of publishing journalism, criticism and poetry, to write novels – which is to say, finishing them; I’d been starting and abandoning novels since I’ve been 12 – there was no question that they would be historical. As in, set in the past. There are reasons I chose to write mysteries, and other reasons why I chose Ernest Hemingway as my reluctant literary sleuth, and that decision essentially decided the novels’ settings and eras. But the project had to be historical, not because I’m mad for historical fiction in particular, but because I’m mad for the past. I’m a nostalgist, I suppose, meaning, the world of the past grows for me in loveliness and vitality as the world of the present shrinks in pettiness and stupidity. Predictably, this ratio of feeling is widening as I age.

Nostalgia has gotten a bum rap in the last 40 years or more, mostly as a victim of academic English departments and the rise of postmodern theory. Actually, "nostalgia" as it was more or less redefined for all of us in the ‘70s, as we began to idealize and resurrect the ‘50s and then the ‘60s, initiating a cycle that grows notoriously shorter as it progresses and as our cultural technology speeds along, was always kind of thin stuff. Nobody can make a passionate case for Happy Days, Grease or Sha Na Na being deathless cultural gifts, or for their popularity being anything more than mass whimsy. Nostalgia embodied in the pop-culture arena can be as trite as anything that’s up-to-the-minute current.

And what’s more, it could be politically and socially poisonous, seen a certain way. The theorists, especially the feminists and postcolonialists, had reasonable stances against nostalgia, as an enabling ideology (stretching that term a bit) for ages of systemic misogyny and colonialist oppression. For hundreds of years women and Third Worlders paid the price of a romanticized British Empire (among others) and a sense of masculine prerogative that hearkened back to an easier, safer, more controllable past. Today, this is best embodied by America’s neo-conservatives, for whom the Eisenhower years were a golden age, and more extremely the "tea party" movement, which seeks to bring American public policy back to the 1800s, before Teddy Roosevelt passed the income tax.

I have no argument with this jaundiced view of nostalgia, and the hazards it recognizes. They could hardly be more real. But nostalgia isn’t a virus, and we don’t have to eliminate it like small pox. For one thing, the past is beautiful. History is beautiful. Proust, of course, makes the greatest and saddest case for this. Michael Chabon, admitting in an essay to suffering "intensely from bouts, at times almost disabling, of a limitless, all-encompassing nostalgia, extending well back into the years before I was born," makes a concise claim toward the impulse’s reevaluation:

"The mass synthesis, marketing, and distribution of versions and simulacra of an artificial past over the last thirty years or so, has ruined the reputation and driven a fatal stake through the heart of nostalgia. Those of us who cannot make it from one end of a street to another without being momentarily upended by some fragment of outmoded typography, curve of chrome fender or whiff of lavender hair oil from the pate of a semiretired neighbor are compelled by the disrepute into which nostalgia has fallen to mourn secretly the passing of a million marvelous quotidian things." ("Landsman of the Lost," Maps and Legends, 2008)

I’d be as happy as the next guy to blame the situation on rampaging commodification, as Chabon does, though I suspect a good many cultural pressures are responsible collectively. Whatever – if you belong to this tribe, Chabon provides you with an anthem in the next paragraph:

"We are not, as our critics would claim, necessarily convinced that things were once better than they are now, nor that we ourselves our parents, or our grandparents were happier ‘back then.’ We are simply like those savants in the Borges story who stumble upon certain objects and totems that turn out to be the random emanations and proofs of existence of Tlon. The past is another planet; anyone ought to wonder, as we do, at any traces of it that turn up on this one."

Here, here. This speaks to my sense of it – the past, in particular the past I never experienced, prior to the ‘60s, is beautiful and fascinating for being both forever unchangeable and forever unknowable, not "better" (as if we could choose) but different, fondly alien. And it seeps through our world, like a watermark. The past is a seductive arena because its tribulations and conflicts are already resolved, for better or worse; retrospection allows us to see the humanity and fiery pleasures of, say, the British homefront during WWII, Paris in the 1920s, or New York in the 1880s, in ways that the immediate stresses and distractions and crises of the time kept everyone from noticing. This is why Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is such a deathless document – not because it’s 100% accurate in its famous recounting of the ‘20s – it couldn’t be – but because it focuses on things and feelings that required time to debarnacle, cleanse, polish and reappreciate. If not for nostalgia, an entire way of seeing human society as it has passed through time would be lost.

As it is, so much is lost, and there’s little we can do to stave the flow, despite the obsessive efforts by untold armies of fiction and memoir writers, history teachers, record and book and antique collectors, archivists, old film lovers, obsolete model railroad fanatics, archaeologists, sports trivia nuts, drag queens, library lovers and museum workers. I’ll give you a taste of what I mean, what I find beautiful about the past: travel posters from the 1920s, early-century book engravings, the cavernous backseats of 1950s Oldsmobiles, the fey yet crystalline dramatic intention of silent movies, pith helmets, terra cotta architectural curlicues, old spice cabinets or specimen drawers, wallpaper (even today, wallpaper that strives to be modern is ludicrously ugly, and so most designs are conscientiously retro), console radios, living rooms not centered on TVs but on fireplaces, Studebakers, old leatherhead football helmets, gaslight, 19th-century newspaper logos, and so on. I prefer these things to their contemporary counterparts, but not because I actually want to live in the past in which these things were contemporary. That would ruin it – the iconography of life is ordinary to you whenever you live. No, I prefer them *because* they’re ghosts of an evaporated world. I posses a fiery ardor for them the way you do for the women you’ve loved and no longer know, the house that you grew up in but has since been bulldozed, and the grandparents about whom almost all you can remember is their smell and their sense of patience.

So, it’s small wonder that my novels would be set in the past – writing fiction, after all, is more fun and immersive than reading it. Who wouldn’t want to vacation in a previous era? With all the ways we’ve designed to escape our present moment, it seems almost an inherent tragedy that the past is inaccessible and lost. Who can blame us for swooning over its artifacts and residue?

Michael Atkinson is a longtime New York film critic and poet, and author of seven books, including the upcoming HEMINGWAY CUTTHROAT, due in the summer of 2010. His website is

Sunday, February 28, 2010


I spent the past two days mingling with well known authors, agents, editors, and those that want to be published, and I had a blast!
I posted some pictures on Facebook here:

I started the conference with the panel with the most tantalizing name: Sex: It Ain't What it Used to Be featuring mostly romance/romantic suspense authors Rhonda Pollero, Leanne Banks, Traci Hall, Terry Odell and Amy Fetzer. The lone male panelist, thriller writer extraordinaire Barry Eisler, was snowed in and missed the panel. The women all agreed that men can't write sex, and when they do, it's "all about the penis." They went on to explain how they don't write sex, they write "sexual tension" of the "make them want, make them wait" variety. Pollero explained that most people have already had sex, and to write about it would be boring, then went in to say, "Like in life, books should have as little sex as possible." All I can say is ladies, go read Eisler - the man writes hot sex! If you'd like to hear more from these ladies, they blog together at

The next panel I attended was on publishing, and featured legendary Putnam editor Neil Nyren, Penguin sales rep Dave Kliegman and bookseller Joanne Sinchuk, manager of Murder on the Beach, a mystery bookstore in Delray Beach, Florida. They discussed the publishing process from when an editor buys a book on down until it hits the bookshelves. The process isn't all that complicated, but it does take some time. When the editor is done with a book, he prepares a short synopsis with appeal characteristics which is then presented at a quarterly sales meeting. The sales reps learn about the new books, and they in turn take that knowledge to their customers like Joanne. Kliegman says after 25 years in the business, he knows which of his customers will like what books, and that's how your favorite books end up on your favorite bookseller's shelves!

David Morrell was the keynote speaker on Saturday. He was brilliant and inspiring, as always. He spoke eloquently about some of the hardships in his life; losing his father on D-Day when he was a baby, abandonment by his single mother until she remarried, a volatile, unstable stepfather. Morrell lost his teenage son to a rare form of bone cancer, then recently lost his granddaughter to the same disease. He says he's been hit as hard as a man can be hit, and I would have to agree with him. He's been writing for thirty-eight years now, and says the secret to his success is that he keeps on reinventing himself. He has a PhD in American literature and is occasionally accused of "slumming" in his reviews. But he says he owes his longevity to something he learned in college: be a first rate version of yourself and not the second rate version of a writer you admire. It seems to be working.

Saturday was a full day of panels, starting with The Plot Thickens. This panel featured Sandra Balzo, Sharon Potts, Rhonda Pollero, Terry Odell, and Lesley Diehl in a lively discussion about plotting mysteries and romance. I didn't know there was such a thing as plotting software, but Pollero swears it keeps her organized. She recommends Power Structure and WriteWayPro software.

Next up was Authors in Wonderland: Recently published authors discuss what they did right and wrong and featured Sharon Potts, Steven Forman, Vincent O'Neil, Deborah Sharp, Caro Soles and Mark Adduci. These authors had lots of advice from entering contests (O'Neill won a St. Martins Press writing contest) to marry someone who works for NBC (Sharp is married to Kerry Sanders, which helped her get a spot on the Today Show) to probably some of the best advice, attend writers conferences and workshops. Potts did for years before her first novel, In Their Blood was published to a starred review from Publishers Weekly and a nomination for Best New Thriller from the International Thriller Writers group. Forman met Doug Preston at an author breakfast and he was instrumental in getting Boca Knights published. All the authors stressed the importance of having a website and doing some social networking.

The last panel of the morning was Hooks, Lines and Sinkers: How to write good outlines, queries, and concepts, and when to use them. Any one who wants to be published would benefit from the sage advice given here by Shannon Jamieson Vazquez, Paige Wheeler, Annette Rogers and PJ Parrish. They went over the basics like a query letter should be three paragraphs long; the first paragraph should have the "log line" or hook, a 1-2 sentence synopsis of the book. Second paragraph should be a more detailed synopsis and the last paragraph should include a relevant author bio that is germane to the book or writing process, like having an MFA for example. All the agents and publishers agreed that email is better than snail mail and to check their websites to see how they handle submissions and queries. They stressed being very direct, professional and honest.

Lumch was followed by keynote speaker Stephen J. Cannell. He is a man who overcame severe dyslexia to become one of the most successful TV producers ever, then followed up that career by writing bestselling novels. For me, one of the highlights of his talk was the way he spoke about his wife, Marsha, who he has known since the 8th grade! He shared with us that he was constantly on the verge of flunking out of school, but he was "relentlessly positive." And he told us that "you don't have to be the smartest kid in school to get where you want to go." He sure proved that.

The panel on Stand Alone Novels was a lot of fun and featured mystery reviewer Oline Cogdill and writers Jonathon King, Peter Robinson, Barry Eisler and moderator PJ Parrish. They talked about the "Harlan Coben effect" by following a midlist series like his Myron Bolitar series with a stand alone thriller that catapulted him to the bestseller lists. It also worked for Laura Lippman. Robinson says he's written a couple of stand alones, but they haven't been published in the US. King spoke about writing the book you want to write, and even though he ended up having to self publish The Styx, he's glad he wrote it. Eisler followed up his terrific Rain series with a stand alone thriller, Fault Line, that I loved. He joked that you call the stand alone following the series "getting some strange" and then said he was so sorry he missed the sex panel. And I was delighted to hear that a sequel to Fault Line, Inside Out, will be coming out this June, turning his stand alone into a new series.

The last panel of the day was one of the most fascinating, Violence: Too Much or Too Little: Where and when to draw the line. David Morrell, CJ Lyons, James Swain, Don Bruns and Barry Eisler had a frank and lively discussion about the desensitization of America, particularly the youth. Eisler referenced a piece he wrote for Huffington Post called Torture Tales. It was brilliant and very disturbing. Swain talked about a cop friend of his who told him about a 12 year old who killed several classmates with one gunshot to the head each. This child had never handled a gun before, so how did he do it? Video games.

Showtime's Dexter, the lovable serial killer based on the Jeff Lindsay books, is "Pinocchio", according to Lyons - "he wants to grow up to be human" and people embrace his character. Lyons also told us that men and women have very different fears: men are afraid of being laughed at, and women are afraid of being killed. They also discussed how many of the most popular TV shows on now, like 24 and Criminal Minds, also help desensitize people to violence and torture. Morrell and Swain think it's because the writers are young and haven't experience the loss of someone close. Swain says when you still have at least one parent alive, people think they are invincible because they know their parent will go first. But once both parents are gone, "God has you in his range." In other words, you're next.

Those sobering words ended my day at Sleuthfest and left me a lot to think about it. It was a great conference and all the struggling writers I spoke with really felt like they learned a lot. I'd have to agree.

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