StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

85A: The Cover

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on April 25, 2009
85A Front Cover (Joe Flood, Illustrator)

85A Front Cover (Joe Flood, Illustrator)

Yes, I’ve been away from the blog for a long time. I was busy finishing the pre-publisher/agent draft of 85A. Now I’m preparing the proposal.

The highly instructive book Your Novel Proposal: From Creation to Contract by Blythe Cameson and Marshall J. Cook suggests that we take a kitchen-sink approach to proposal submissions,  incorporating everything from marketing ideas to possible cover designs.

Now seemed as good a time as any to tap my eminently talented illustrator friend Joe Flood to do the cover design. I am out of superlatives to describe the expertise with which he executed the illustration above.

The cover depicts a dream that my 15-year-old protagonist, Seamus, has after waking up in the hospital after a suicide attempt and hearing from the doctor that it was a miracle that he survived (naturally, if you steal any of the following text, I’ll sic my lawyers on you):

“Dr. Lang left the room. I closed my eyes. There was an IV in my arm but I was so beat, I hardly noticed. I dropped right off to sleep and dreamed I was back in the station wagon in our garage. Only this time, the garage was open. A wind whipped in and washed out all the exhaust. I got out of the car, walked out of the garage past Frank Seaberg, who was standing with one foot inside and one foot outside the garage, and down our driveway to the sidewalk. I walked down Ponchitrain Street to the corner of Lehigh. It was dark as the night before, the night I planned to make my last, and the streetlights were glowing. I looked far off into the distance across the railroad tracks and saw the Chicago skyline like I always do on a clear day. I watched it for a little while. But, all of a sudden, all the lights went off on all the skyscrapers and new lights started rising up. I saw London Bridges and Big Ben. London was in sight beyond the railroad tracks, where the Sears Tower, John Hancock and all the other downtown buildings used to be. I could feel my heart opening wider and wider. The Chicago skyline lights came back on soon after, but the London lights stayed on too. And between Chicago and London, more bridges and skyscrapers started coming up on the horizon, ones that I didn’t recognize at first. I recognized the Empire State Building from old movies, though, so something in me knew I was looking at New York. Looking out from the bus stop, I saw Chicago, New York and London standing together, not as three different places, but as one continuous city. I turned my head north toward Touhy Avenue and saw the 85A coming my way, opening its doors before it could even make a full stop. I looked at the driver. It was Oscar Wilde in his curls, a frock coat and a lavender silk scarf. I saw there was only one passenger on the bus. It was none other than Johnny Rotten, sitting toward the front with his legs draped over the seat next to him. He was wearing a black overcoat, square shades and a sneer. He was drinking a can of Guiness and wiping dribble off his chin. I remember thinking, I didn’t get to do Earnest, but I didn’t miss the bus either. There’s still life on the horizon.”

Check out Joe Flood’s work on his website, http://www.kneedeeppress.com.

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85A Log: My Miracle Lunch with Shell

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on August 15, 2008

So, yesterday, I had my fateful lunch with Shell at Miracle Grill, where we went over the first draft of 85A. I had the Blue-Corn Fried Chicken Tacos with chips and salsa and an iced tea. She had a quesadilla and a few glasses of water.

Before we got started, we celebrated her most recent freelance breakthrough. AARP, circulation 38 million, has accepted Shell’s pitch to write a profile on the graphic novelist who created the Joker. A career salvo, indeed. Way to go, Shell!

Her feedback on 85A was entirely constructive. She began by praising both the writing and the concept. Still, as I already knew, there’s a lot more work left for me to do on the book. An entire rewrite, actually.

Here’s what she had to say:

1. Start with An Action Scene: As it reads right now, the books starts with Seamus standing at the 85A bus stop, ruminating on the racism and violence in his pure-white middle class neighborhood. This is not as compelling as beginning with an action sequence.

(notice the Icarus wings)

(notice the Icarus wings)

I knew just what she meant. What leaped to mind immediately were the first lines of Toni Morrison’s Paradise:

“They shoot the white girl first. With the rest, they can take their time.”

Boom! Sucks you right in. Then, by and by, Morrison weaves in the history of Ruby, Oklahoma. Doesn’t spell it all out at once. She takes her time.

Similarly, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon begins with the North Carolina Mutual Insurance agent, Robert Smith (a black Icarus), leaping off the Mercy Hospital roof with a pair of homemade wings on the morning that Morrison’s protagonist, Milkman, is born.

So, yes, golden advice: start with a memorable action sequence.

2. Cut down on the F word: It is hardly an exaggeration to say that, in the first draft, every second to third word out of Seamus’ mouth is fuck. I wanted to show how dead-set he is on recreating the Johnny Rotten/Sid & Nancy experience in his barely pubescent Chicago life. Even I feared the fuck-repetitions were excessive. My fears proved true. I fully agree with Shell that it became more pesky than revealing after a while. As a matter of fact, she rightly discerned that, when the story really got moving, she saw that I wrote less and less fuck’s. Now, that’s not to say the fuck’s don’t have their place. In fact, they have a time-honored place. It’s just that the fuck’s are more effective when they’re more strategically positioned.

3. Imagery: Shell told me that I do a great job of vivifying the characters. What I need to do, once again, is to slow it down and include more sights, sounds, smells, and bodily sensations. Right now, it reads like I’m trying to get my main points down on paper – rushing to get to the point (a symptom of our ADD culture). But there needs to be more sensory input if I’m going to form a complete picture.

4. You See: There are times when Seamus will say things like “But, see, the thing is…” as if he’s speaking directly to the camera instead of soul searching.

A big challenge for me is that, while I want there to be action, I also want to show how Seamus is mostly solitary, idle and given to grandiose fantasies that have little basis in reality. How do you balance that with the kind of dynamism that keeps your reader reading?

I even picked up The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Novel for help. A sci-fi, fantasy writer named Tom Monteleone wrote it. Somewhere toward the middle of the book, he said something about how, every year, a glut of novels about alienated individuals trying to make sense of the big-bad world take up space on publishers’ desks, mostly before being shoved into the recycling bin. Monteleone then says, “If you’re planning to write that kind of novel, do yourself a favor. Don’t.”

I can sort of see the wisdom in that. Only, I feel like I have to write 85A, which fits the very description of the books he condemns. Plus, I have a long history of starting and stopping novels. Dammit, I’m gonna finish this one! Sorry, Mr. Monteleone.

The MFA Question

Enough ink has been spilled on the topic of whether an MFA in creative writing is absolutely necessary for someone who would like to write and publish novels. Still, I felt the need to ask Shell her thoughts on the matter since she got an MFA at Naropa University.

I never went to grad school. Some of our greatest writers never did either. On the other hand, many of our greatest writers – Flannery O’Connor, Michael Cunningham, Junot Diaz, and my newly discovered hero Joshua Furst – did come out of MFA programs.

Shell came down on the side of it not being necessary. You can learn some good things in MFA programs, she said. You can learn the art of the short story. No one is ever prepared for the novel, though. You just gotta go balls-out.

Some years ago, I picked up a book called The Portable MFA. I liked it when I worked with it, but it’s now sitting in one of my dusty book boxes. I should dig it out again. I’ve always been the kind who has learned best outside of confining environments like classrooms and offices. That’s not to say I’ve learned nothing in those settings, but I’ve learned far less in them than I have by doing my own reading, conducting my own dialogues, and following my own interests.

I’m extremely fortunate to have someone like Shell to give me this kind of feedback. With that, let me give Shell Fischer’s services another plug and send you to her website, where you can contact her: http://www.shellfischer.com.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I got a novel to write.

85A Log: Sid Lives! (Right Alongside Ian)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 16, 2008

So, last night, Mike and I were hanging out at one of the alfresco tables of this one Cuban restaurant on Bowery, right across from where CBGB used to be. Now CB is an art gallery called Morrison Hotel. Ain’t bad there actually. Vivid punk and glam memorabilia – Liebovitz and Mapplethorpe-level photos of The Stones, Iggy Pop, Elton John, The New York Dolls, Debbie Harry, Sex Pistols, Bauhaus. The window display was that disgusting picture of Sid Vicious eating a mustard-slathered hot dog with his mouth open. Then, I kid you not, two people walked by – within five minutes of each other – wearing Sid Vicious t-shirts. This morning, on my way to go write at Tea Lounge, I passed a kid, no older than 18, wearing a t-shirt featuring the front page of a newspaper with the headline: “Sid Vicious Overdoses on Heroin, Dies.”

This all bodes so well for me! I mean, 85A might be set in 1989, but Seamus’ obsession with Sex Pistols (ten years after their breakup) is still timely. (His favorite band is Public Image Ltd. He’s way more into Johnny than Sid.)

Two books in particular have helped me recapture the disaffected spirit of Sex Pistols youth: Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus and England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond by Jon Savage. Also, John Lydon’s autobiography Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs was surprisingly well-written and informative; I’ve always loved Johnny Rotten for his wit and candor. I also went back and watched My Beautiful Laundrette, This Is England, The Great Rock N’ Roll Swindle, The Filth & The Fury, and of course Sid & Nancy.

I first saw Sid & Nancy when I was 13 years old. It had way too big an impact on me. Sid, Nancy, and Johnny’s foul mouths and havoc-reeking looked like total liberation to me. I started talking and acting like them every chance I got. Made my home life even worse than it already was. I also entered high school with that well-worn Rotten attitude, thinking everybody had seen the movie and knew what statement I was making. No, they just thought I was a twerp and an asshole. Walk in like that as a freshman, you’re going to spend the rest of your high school years living it down…and, well, that’s what happened.

So, I wondered what kind of appeal Sid & Nancy would hold for me at age 34. Oh my God! I am so embarrassed that I thought those people were cool. They were nasty, malignant, maladjusted scapegraces. Why didn’t I pick better role models growing up? What can I say, I was possessed. I needed to get all that sedition out of my system. Having said all that, Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb give peerless, searingly authentic portrayals of Sid and Nancy from start to finish.

I also recently rented Control, a wonderful film about the rise and fall of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis by Hungarian director Anton Corbijn. I was a captive Joy Division and early New Order fan as a teenager. All accounts I’ve read point up Ian Curtis as a total dick. Control has quite the opposite take on him. Even as an adulterer, he comes off as a sweet, sensitive, even polite youth who only wants a simple life of work, marriage, fatherhood and poetic musings. Life has other plans for him, though, when it catapults him into stardom. Samantha Morton gives a heartrending performance as Curtis’ beleaguered wife, Debbie Woodruff. Sam Riley is absolutely prodigious, adorable and tragic as Curtis.

But does the film’s account of Curtis’ death (at age 23) stand up to fact? Corbijn has Curtis hang himself in Debbie’s kitchen pantry. From what I’ve read, he hung a rope from Debbie’s living-room ceiling and stood on a block of ice, noose around his neck, while watching TV. By the time Debbie came home from work that night, the ice had melted, the TV was crackling static and Ian was dangling, dead.

I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone, but one of the things that charmed me most about the film was that the first track on the soundtrack was “Drive-in Saturday” from David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane (1973). Curtis has just come home from buying Aladdin Sane at the record store in Macclesfield. He lays back on his bed and lets the album spirit him away. Then, his best friend Nick swings by with his girlfriend Debbie, who’ll soon be Curtis’ wife. Curtis rolls off his bed and starts applying glitter eyelashes to look more like Bowie. Oh, why didn’t that period of music last longer? In my late teens and early twenties, I used to sit in my bedroom with the lights out, playing that same LP.

Another amazing track they play is from one of my all-time favorite albums, “Warszawa” from Bowie’s Low (1977). It’s so deep, sad, haunting. Once again, in my room, I used to play “Warszawa” and all of Side Two of Low again and again and again while I smoked Camel Lights, wrote in my journal and looked out over all the miasma curling off the trees in my backyard. It made me want to be an expat writer, living in Berlin. Well…that didn’t end up happening.

But there is a great German film about a 14-year-old heroin addict prostitute called Christiane F. (1981). The soundtrack is all Thin White Duke-period Bowie (including, “Warszawa”); through most of that period of his music (1976-1979), he was living in Berlin. He even appears in the movie when Christiane goes to his concert and tries heroin for the first time. He does a killer live version of “Station to Station.” The movie is based on the book, Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo. (I actually read the English translation about 15 years ago. It’s not bad.) Only problem with the movie is that the dubbing is so bad, you might find yourself laughing your ass off while she goes cold turkey.

Progress Report: 85A

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 9, 2008

Lord knows I have my days, but, on balance, I could not be more thrilled with how my novel, 85A, is shaping up. It’s already crossed its 174th page and there is way more to go.

The Patron Saint of 85A

Johnny Rotten - Patron Saint of 85A

Set in a racially stratified Late Eighties Chicago, 85A centers on the life and consciousness of a foul-mouthed, Johnny Rotten-obsessed, 15-year-old boy named Seamus O’Grady. Despite his rough edges, Seamus is actually a sensitive artist trying desperately to come to terms with his sexuality, spirituality, and creativity amid the authoritarianism, racism and homophobia of his household, school, neighborhood and city. At the same time, he has big dreams to live in London as a writer or actor or maybe as a psychologist like his mentor Dr. Strykeroth (with whom he has a more-than-questionable relationship).

This day-in-the-life, stream-of-consciousness narrative tracks Seamus’ inner life and outer struggle as he takes the 85A bus to the Chicago L, which brings him to the high-performing Catholic school that is itching to kick him out. Will the heads of the school expel him? And what would he do if they did? These are but two of the besetting questions facing Seamus. My largest ambition for this work is to plumb the depths of Seamus’ character while giving readers a vivid snapshot of life in 1980s Chicago.

Given Seamus’ emulation of Johnny Rotten, my fear is that this book would be too vulgar for a publisher of fiction and/or Young Adult fiction, but…

editor extraordinaire

Shell Fischer - Writer/Editor extraordinaire

Shell Fischer will be helping me edit the manuscript once I manage to heft it on to her desk. I couldn’t think of a better ‘nother-set-of-eyes than Shell. She is a freelance writer and editor here in Brooklyn and the author of a saucy new novel called The Joy of Mom. If you require writing and editing services, I highly recommend her. Go to http://www.shellfischer.com.

So, having Shell sets my mind at rest. Plus…

I ran into my friend Libba Bray today at Tea Lounge on Union Street & 7th Avenue, here in sunny Park Slope, Brooklyn. Libba is the author of the monstrously successful Young Adult books A Great And Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, and The Sweet Far Thing. We used to write in the same cafe together – she the legend, me the aspiring. Today, when I voiced my trepidation about the marketability of a book as profane as 85A, she spoke with enormous pride and conviction about how YA genre books have become more and more unflinching. If A Clockwork Orange were submitted for first-time publication today, it’d probably find a happy home in YA. I breathed a sigh of relief. I don’t know why I was surprised, though. Libba’s work is pretty two-fisted itself.

When I do get a publisher, I’m going to make a special request that I get to keep the quotes already featured on each of the three sections of my book. (That is, if it still has three sections after the publishers get done with it…)

The first quote for Part I comes from:

The Who - Quadrophenia

The Who - Quadrophenia

The song, “Four Faces” from The Who’s Quadrophenia:

You must have heard of them, a kind of screwed-up blend

Split personality

Two sides to fight and argue all night

Over coffee and tea…

I’ve got four hang-ups I’m trying to beat

Four directions and just two feet

Got a very very secret identity

And I don’t know which one is me.

From the time I started writing this book (originally, a short story) in January 2008, it never ceased to amaze me how much influence the album and movie Quadrophenia had on my personal aesthetic and sensibility. Seamus is just as confused as Jimmy, if not more so. (He’s younger, though…)

The quote from Part Two comes from…

New York Dolls

New York Dolls

The New York Dolls’ 1973 invective, “Personality Crisis”

All about the Personality Crisis

You got it while it was hot

But now frustration and heartache is what you’ve got…

In 85A, Seamus’s got a personality crisis, big-time.

Final quote, Part III, comes from:

Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams

The great Tennessee Williams: “There is a time for departure, even when there is no certain place to go.” Part Three is where Seamus finds himself at the most harrowing crossroads of his life.

Earnest Hemingway at His Writing Desk

Earnest Hemingway at His Writing Desk

Speaking of literary masters and writing (and because I have not been overzealous enough with posting pics), I read somewhere that Hemingway only wrote 500 words a day. This was an enormously helpful bit of news on those days when I had a famine of ideas but couldn’t answer to my conscience if I didn’t meet some healthy writing quota. I set 500 words as my daily minimum and often found myself surpassing that number each time a narrative momentum started to pick up. But we must also heed the advice that Hemingway gives in A Moveable Feast, which was basically: quit while you’re ahead; otherwise you won’t have anything to start with the next day.

Okay, so, that’s all for now re: 85A. More field reports coming soon.