Friday, September 28, 2007

A Visit with Gore Vidal: That Old Hollywood Magic

Gore Vidal with beloved cat Baby Brown.

My motto: Anything worth doing is worth overdoing. Hence in addition to giving a Book Promotion 101 workshop tomorrow and appearing on a panel at Sunday's West Hollywood Book Fair, while I'm in LA this weekend I'm also interviewing some of my father's old friends.

So after a fabu lunch at Joan's on Third (their burrata is an epiphany), I took a cab high up into the Hollywood Hills. There I spent an enchanted afternoon with writer Gore Vidal, who knew my father in Rome in the late 1960s.

The thick stone and adobe walls of Mr. Vidal's home, built in 1920, block out the sounds of the modern world. Its sights are kept at bay thanks to views of the lush, enclosed grounds outside and the impressive collection of old art and antiques displayed inside.

"Let's see Caspar," he said shortly after I sat down. I thought he was referring to a friendly ghost, but then he switched on a light behind a stained-glass miniature hanging on a wall. Pictured was one Caspar Vidall, a Viennese (I think) apothecary, dated 1589. And here I'd been excited that I'd traced a Stander forebear to late 18th-century Lithuania.

Vidal regaled me with a wide-ranging array of stories. Seems my dad used to sit in a big chair on the terrace outside his apartment on the Via Veneto. He'd espy Vidal on his way home from the gym and invite him upstairs for a drink. "I just had one now, in memory of Lionel," Vidal said to me, raising his whiskey and soda.

My host told me the legend illustrated by a 4th century B.C. Etruscan stone funeral urn that sits atop a massive coffee table, itself a work of art with a gold mosaic patterned after one in a church in Ravello, his home for many years.

I had to promise not to repeat any salacious tales Vidal shared about living people. But he related a marvelous story--with appropriate accent--that he'd heard from actress Judith Anderson (best known as Mrs Danvers in "Rebecca"; she was in at least one play and a movie, "Spectre of the Rose," with my dad). Anderson drove home drunk from a party and woke up the next morning with a crashing hangover, caressing the smooth head of a strange man. When she finally got up the courage to see who her bald bedmate was, she discovered she was lying on the bathroom floor with her arm around the toilet.

I said, "That's when I'd say to myself that it's time to give up drinking."

"Oh," replied Vidal. "She probably just had another drink to steady her nerves."

He also told how he used to go horseback riding every week with Paul Newman in the hills above the Warner studio. One time, in the late 1950s, they were joined by Eartha Kitt, who was mounted on Linda, a "nasty" thoroughbred. Linda bolted and galloped off, with Vidal and Newman in hot pursuit. When the two men caught up on their horses, Vidal told me admiringly, Linda was all in a lather but Kitt, ever the graceful dancer, had kept her seat in style. Better still, she did her stage show as usual that night.

Vidal will be signing books at the Book Soup table at the book fair at 2pm on Sunday. I'll be first in line.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Workin' It!

Thanks to Darling Husband having bought tickets to Univ. of Virginia football games during our Charlottesville sojourn, we magically wound up on the mailing list for the UVa Club of Denver. A couple weeks ago, we received an announcement that there was going to be a debut book release and signing party on the 15th for UVa alum Saira Rao, author of the novel CHAMBERMAID (Grove). It was to be held at The Inn at Cherry Creek, a cute little boutique hotel just a 5-minute drive from My Gracious Home, with (free) food and (free) drink. As a further inducement, "The first 10 guests to arrive will each receive a free book!"

I was so there.

Not having checked out Rao's website beforehand, I was expecting CHAMBERMAID to be a memoir by a Chinese hotel worker. Oops. It's a comic novel about clerking for a federal judge, and Rao is of Indian descent.

I also assumed that Rao lives in Denver. Oops 2. The party was hosted by local resident Betsy McPherson, whom she's been friends with since they lived in the same dorm during their freshman year. (Oops 3: That should be "First Year." Mr. Jefferson's University employs its own nomenclature; hence it has "grounds," not a campus.) Rao and her husband live in New York, but are regular visitors chez McPherson. They were coming to see Betsy's new baby anyway, so the happy young mother threw her BFF a bang-up launch party.

Even though I'd arrived a fashionable quarter-hour late, I was among the first 10 there, so was given a copy of CHAMBERMAID (love that shiny red jacket!) by Rao herself. Plenty more people showed up after I did, and after everyone had mingled and noshed, Rao gave a crisp, funny speech out on the inn's capacious terrace. (No bugs! Living in an arid climate has its benefits.) She freely admitted that the novel is thinly veiled autobiography: after getting her law degree from NYU, she clerked for a female judge in Philadelphia, just like her narrator, Sheila Raj.

Because, as Rao put it, she's an early riser and "no one in New York gets to work before 10am," she had plenty of time to write in the mornings. Once she'd finished the book, a friend of a friend referred her to an agent, who signed her immediately and quickly sold the book to Grove. Rao told how, over celebratory cocktails, her editor told her she had a "small problem" with part of the book and would need some changes.

"Sure," said Rao, who was feeling very cheery after her 2nd--or was it 3rd?-- drink. "Which part?"

"Chapters 10 thru 24," answered the editor. "They have to go."

Welcome to the writing life.

I chatted with Rao, who is now my Poster Girl for Book Promotion. Not only is she working the UVa alum angle, but along with doing bookstore signings, she has been traveling around the country giving speeches to lawyers on--get this!--time management and writing. Check out her Appearances page; it's crammed from June to November with law firms, professional and women's associations, and South Asian groups.

Rao is currently on hiatus from lawyering. (With that schedule, how could she have the time?) Her colleagues, aghast that she'd dared disclose the (hideous) inner workings of clerking for the judiciary, told her she'd never get another legal job. Much to her surprise, she's gotten offers from various law firms. We'll see what the future brings: perhaps a rising Holly/Bollywood star as Sheila Raj?

College buddies Betsy McPherson and debut novelist Saira Rao (r).

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Quote for the Ages

The writer's life would be ideal but for the writing. That was a problem I had to overcome.

Then I read in the Guinness Book of Records about Earle Stanley Gardiner, the world's fastest novelist, who can dictate up to the rate of 10,000 words a day. That was for me! None of that romantic stuff with a typewriter; I had better uses for those two particular fingers.
--Michael Caine as a schlock fiction writer in "Pulp" (1972), written and directed by Mike Hodges.

I just watched "Pulp" after having bought the VHS off eBay last year. My father has 3rd billing, after Caine and Mickey Rooney, and all three give standout comic performances. Until the confusing mishmash of an ending (surely more plot/exposition could have substituted for the grisly wild boar hunt that runs under the final credits), the movie is a total hoot, with wonderfully witty dialogue and narration. Great scenery too: the pic was shot entirely in sunblasted Malta. The only dud is "the girl"--Nadia Cassini, apparently cast for her ultra-long legs, displayed to full advantage by teeny-tiny hot pants and platform heels. (Which are back in fashion why?)

Darling Husband and I were cracking up over the ultra-1970s soundtrack, only to have our jaws drop when the credits revealed the composer to have been George Martin.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Awful Truth

Publitron, co-writer of my new favorite blog, Slunch, offers terrific publicity advice in A Thousand Splendid Blogs-an open letter to Peter Sacks.

Over at Heretic Spire, a Damn Lie author Cherie Priest has churned out an instant classic of authorial advice: Things I've Learned Since My First Book Got Published.

I've been...GASP!...writing lately. Willingly, yet. (Better late then never.) In so doing, I've discovered that I'm one of those people who can spew into Word or spew into Blogger, but not both. Hence no blog posts for the past six days.

I was going to bang out more deathless prose today, but woke up feeling stupid and viral. And now I feel even more stupid after spending 3+ hours vainly searching for the errant HTML that's screwing up this one web page--but only with Explorer; Firefox is A-OK. No creative writing for me till my brain unclouds.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

'Mad Men' and the Chekhov Rule

Speaking of "Mad Men" (see preceding post), I'm wondering when newlywed junior exec Pete is going to start shooting--and at whom.

To recap, in Episode 7, "Red in the Face," arrogant young (oh wait, all the men in the show are arrogant and young...except the ones who are arrogant and old) Pete exchanges the garish Chip 'n' Dip tray he'd gotten as a wedding present for a 22-caliber rifle*. To the vast amusement of the guys crowded into his office, he takes aim at "the girls" in the secretarial pool and pretends to pop each one off. Despite his wife's resulting fury (or maybe because of it), Pete doesn't return the rifle and it remains propped against a wall in his office. It's the sole background object during his clinch with secretary Peggy.

To mix metaphors, that rifle is a ticking bomb. According to the immutable laws of drama, as laid out by Anton Chekhov (courtesy of Wikipedia):
  • "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it."
  • "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there."
So I'm wondering when that gun is going to go off. Anyone want to lay odds?

*You could buy a rifle in NYC in 1960? And blithely parade with it through the streets and into an office building?? Really???

Connecting the Dots to "That Pink Lady"

On a recent episode of "Mad Men," one of the characters mentions Dick Nixon's defeat of "that pink lady."

My reaction: "Huh?"

Darling Husband told me that Nixon had won his first election in California by painting his female rival as a Communist, but couldn't remember any details.

I filed that away in the "Tidbits" section of my brain. Then I was reading the NYT over breakfast this morning, and in the middle of an article on newly colorized films on DVD, I hit this nugget about the 1935 movie "She":
To incarnate She (who in the novel is called Ayesha), [producer Merian C.] Cooper cast a well-known Broadway actress, Helen Gahagan, whose first and last film this was. The wife of the actor Melvyn Douglas, she turned to politics and served three terms in the House of Representatives before she was defeated in a 1950 Senate race by a young Richard M. Nixon in a notorious red-baiting campaign.

And then I remembered another tidbit I'd filed away: in a 1971 NYT interview, my father had railed against Nixon and "the scurrilous persecution of Helen Gahagan Douglas.”


A Google search turned up Helen Gahagan Dougles Online, which includes this:
She served in the House for three terms until 1950, when she sought the Senate seat held by Sheridan Downey.

After a particularly nasty primary she faced Republican Congressman Richard Nixon in the general election. The campaign was destined to be one of the nation's most famous--and infamous. Nixon, waging an inspiring red-baiting campaign, was unrelenting in his charges. If he never actually called her a communist, saying she was "pink right down to her underwear" was not a fashion critique. His legions were yet less restrained. Murray Chotiner, Nixon's campaign manager, printed an infamous flyer that was handed out at rallies. Printed on pink paper (and, thus, forever known as the "pink sheet"), it more than implied a connection between Douglas and communism.

Sunday, September 09, 2007


On the way for a walk with Jenny at Crown Hill Lake Park, I had the happy idea to have lunch afterwards at the nearby Empress Sea Food Restaurant, site of our annual Jewish Christmas chowfest. Darling Husband, the Boy Wonder and I worked up quite an appetite during our trip around the lake, which we sated with many plates of dim sum.

Best of all, I discovered that I could use chopsticks again! The dexterity in my right hand has improved despite its remaining partially numb. I didn't drop one morsel of food, though I tucked my napkin into my neckline just in case.

Funny thing: the all-Chinese staff ate their lunch with forks and spoons. We assumed it was to not waste the one-use chopsticks; they rolled back the tablecloth too.

Saturday, September 08, 2007


Lee Marvin in "Cat Ballou"

This morning I went for docent training at Four Mile Historical Park, home of my new boyfriends. Four Mile House, built in 1859, is the oldest surviving house in Denver, though technically it was outside Denver--four miles away, in fact--when it was built. There were older buildings in the area, but they were swept away in the great flood of 1864.

Four Mile's second owner was one Mary Cawker, a widow who purchased the house in 1860 at age 47. Her moonshiner husband having died of TB in Wisconsin, Mary made the trip to the Colorado Territory with her teenage son and daughter. She soon had a thriving business serving the stage lines that stopped at Four Mile House.

One of Mary's profitable products, I learned today, was whisky--better and more accurately known as "Taos lightning." She cooked it up herself; the ingredients were:
  • Equal parts 180-proof grain alcohol and water
  • For flavor:
    • chili peppers (perhaps from New Mexico)
    • tannin bark (some sort of tree root; tasted like sassafras)
    • gunpowder(!)
    • strychnine (!!)
  • For color: grasshoppers; or if unavailable, cigar stubs
And you thought bathtub gin was nasty!

We weren't told whether Mary drank her own brew. I rather think not, as she lived to move to New Mexico (impelled by the 1864 flood) and then California, where she ended her days.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Guffaw of the Day

Per a Slate piece, Jerry Seinfeld was recently quoted as saying that the case of Idaho senator Larry Craig is "one of the greatest things to ever have happened" to comedy." The proof came in today's Borowitz Report, beginning with its headline:

Craig: I Will Not Blow This Job

Idaho Senator Withdraws Resignation

It only gets better after that.

Disclaimer: Not responsible for workplace disruption if you read this at the office.

Monday, September 03, 2007

One Less Thing to Needlessly Obsess About

Today's NYT "Media" page dropped a bombshell: Amazon Drops Inventory Data, Irking Writers. Seems that Amazon is no longer reporting how many copies of a title it has in stock.

My reaction: So what?

Per an Amazon spokesman:
“Customers could still make a choice on whether or not to buy a product without having to know how many are in stock.”
Exactly. Who goes into their neighborhood bookstore and asks to know how many copies of a book are in stock before deciding whether to purchase it? But according to the executive director of the Authors Guild,
...the Amazon policy change makes the bookselling business “that much more opaque for authors.”

“Right now, there’s a great deal of interest in the author community on what the rankings are,” he said... This was one of the few places where you could get real-time data about how your books are doing.”

Except that Amazon was reporting how many copies were in stock, not how many they sold. Repeatedly checking Amazon sales rankings is a common authorly neurosis (read: time-waster), but the rankings give no intelligible indication of the number of books moved. Moreover, Amazon's sales represent only a fraction of the book market.

Better that authors should get their hands on their BookScan reports (their agents will, most likely), which will give them a far clearer idea of how their books are doing across the market, not just at one online retailer. And if they want to obsess, they can puzzle through their royalty reports, or try to pump up their Technorati "authority." Or, I don't know...WRITE THE NEXT BOOK.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Publicity ≠ Love...or Sales

Last month a publicity director told me, "A tour does not equal love"--meaning that sending an author out on tour doesn't guarantee adoring crowds. The next day, an agent wanted me to quantify the value of my workshops and consulting.

"Never mind all this touchy-feely stuff about giving authors the confidence to do their own publicity," she said. "When I look at their BookScan numbers, how much of a difference am I going to see?"

No one had ever asked me that before. Stumped, I attempted to make the case that it's hard to put a dollar value on the benefits of publicity, and that the touchy-feely stuff is exactly the point of what I'm doing. An author who's confident about self-promotion and how to go about it will garner more and better publicity, professional recognition, word of mouth about the book, better sales and a better deal for the next book.

She wasn't buying any of it, but her junior colleagues were. (Thank dog!) Better still, I--and that publicity director--got vindication in today's NYT, in the article mentioned in the below post. It concludes:

Although authors say that the virtual tours generate traffic for their Web sites and that they have seen their online sales increase, it is difficult to tell how much blog book tours increase sales.

“I haven’t been following that or charting it in a quantitative way,” said Dave Weich, director of marketing and development at Powell’s Books, a bookseller in Portland, Ore...But then, the dirty little secret of real-life author tours, he said, is that “most of the people who go to events don’t buy books.”

News Flash: Authors Promote Their Books on "Blogs"

Once again, the NYT has caught the trough of the wave. This time the latest (and I do mean latest) news is about authors who do guest stints on blogs--"virtual book tours," if you will.

The Author Will Take Q.'s Now by Kara Jesella profiles the Brave New Publicity World of first-time Manhattan author Amy Cohen, a former writer/producer for the TV series "Caroline in the City" and "Spin City." Cohen's memoir, THE LATE BLOOMER'S REVOLUTION, quipped her publicist at Hyperion, wasn't even going to garner her a trip to Scarsdale (30 minutes away by commuter train). The article's "no book tour" premise gets the lie on Cohen's website, which lists July appearances at a Manhattan B&N and Book Soup in Los Angeles. A mere two midsummer appearances on opposite coasts is negligible, though. Cohen could have snagged them herself; maybe she did.

has made it onto at least one best-seller list [which one?] even without a traditional reading and signing tour. She credits a write-up in People magazine [you think?], along with a newer publishing tool: the blog book tour, in which an author pops up on a series of blogs, usually over days or weeks, variously writing guest posts, answering questions from the host or sitting for a podcast, a video interview or a live chat.
Jesella quotes a senior online marketing manager at HarperCollins
who maintains that the Internet exposes authors to a broader audience than most bookstore readings.
Well, duh! But she neglects to point out that HC is one of the few--if only--houses to have such staff. (And kudos to them, I say. More publishers should follow suit.)

One thing that made me happy about the article was the big fat mention of and accompanying quote by co-founder Kevin Smokler*, who originated the Virtual Book Tour four years ago. Better late than never...

*he's speaking at my LA workshop on the 29th

The Last Beach Holiday of Summer

Google Alert has alerted me to the online existence of the trailer of Roman Polanski's black comedy "Cul-de-Sac," shot on Holy Island off the coast of England. My dad's the raspy-voiced thug with his arm in a sling.

I remember sitting with him in a darkened room in Paris, during my 5th-grade Christmas holiday, while he dubbed dialogue over a scene in which he pushed a car over a causeway onto the island. The film netted him a hernia along with a Grand Prize at Cannes.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Pub Talk: Laurie Viera Rigler

Laurie Viera Rigler at Alice's Teacup.

On August 15, I went to an event for CONFESSIONS OF A JANE AUSTEN ADDICT, Laurie Viera Rigler's marvelous fiction debut. Her reading/signing was held at 6pm (teatime!) at Alice's Teacup Chapter II, which is situated in an old townhouse on East 64th Street.

Rachel Ekstrom, the hardworking associate director of publicity at Dutton & Gotham Books, arranged for me to meet her and Rigler a half-hour beforehand. Joining us was new assistant publicist Sarah Muszynski, who thought up the event and arranged it with Alice's Teacup. (She's a devotee of the 81st Street shop.)

We had a jolly good time discussing Jane Austen--that's "Miss Austen" to you--her world and her works, and the flame war over whether Fanny Price in Mansfield Park was a prig. (I'm not making this up; I saw it my own self.) I've never had a better pot of Lapsang Souchong anywhere, though I take issue with the website's declaration that the water is "boiled to 180 degrees"; also the violent turquoise walls--guaranteed to insult any complexion. They're bleached out in the photo above, but are in their glaring glory in the two below.

And what's with the butterfly-wing motif? There was a caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, but no winged insects that I can recall; or fairies. A Google search turns up a Gnat in Through the Looking-Glass, who tells Alice about the Bread-and-butter-fly, which survives on a diet of weak tea and cream. I know: I'm a nitpicker. A digressive one.

Sarah Muszynski in borrowed wings, glowing at the success of her brainchild.

The event itself was held in a room at the back of the second floor. For $30, attendees got a pot of tea, scads of scones and a copy of the book, which Rigler signed afterward. Several people bought multiple copies.

Every book event should be so cozy and cheery! The room was overflowing with readers (I counted 24 women and 3 men, including some in an adjoining area), many of them committed Janeites, happily sipping tea and making friends with their neighbors. No stone-faced hipsters here.

It's amazing what a good setting, good chow and a good book can do. Plus a good presentation, of course. Rigler's an excellent reader and speaker, and the audience gobbled her up with their scones. We were all thrilled to learn that's she's hard at work on a sequel.

Laurie Viera Rigler reading to a rapt audience at Alice's Teacup.