My Friends and Associates at Book Expo America

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You can learn about a person by what that person does and what that person says. But you can also learn a lot about a journalist by the company he keeps.

One of the great rewards in writing arts journalism, it seems, is to praise those who you admire with complimentary analysis. When the journalist has some kind of direct relationship with the subject, then it is obligatory to use the term, “full disclosure.”

While much of this column is generally reviewing, the time has come to simply honor good and talented friends and professional associates, so many of whom I ran into last weekend at the Book Expo America at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Let’s begin with T. Jefferson Parker, the always provocative and inventive crime novelist. I was fortunate enough to be on a lecture and signing panel with him some time ago, along with the late Dennis Weaver, actor-turned-author-eco-activist. Jeff was on his way to sign audio books and his latest work, L.A. Outlaws (Dutton), is the marvelous tale of an unknown female robber who goes by the name Allison Murrieta, claims she is a descendent of bandit Joaquin Murrieta, robs from the greedy and shares her largesse with charities, until she witnesses a mob slaying and is pressured to testify.

The greatest flash from the past came as I saw Will and Debi Durst, arguably the Lunt and Fontanne of the Bay Area comedy scene. Debi runs the comedy institution the Holy City Zoo and is in charge of Comedy Day in San Francisco. We were both in the Theatre Arts department at San Francisco State and shared some laughs with her husband, Will who as one of the finest satirists we have, knows how to make you laugh and then smack you upside the head and think differently. His latest book is The All-American Sport of Bipartisan Bashing: Common Sense Rantings from a Raging Moderate (Ulysses Press). As for one of my favorite lines of his, found at www.willdurst.com, there is this: “Every time I hear the oil companies talk about solar energy, I worry they’ve developed a plan to block out the sun.”

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Then there is Brad Olsen, publisher, author and the foremost expert on sacred sites around the world, who I in fact met years ago walking down a crowded BEA aisle. His second edition of Sacred Places North America: 108 Destinations is out and features not only his insights on little known places of pilgrimage and vision quests but his own photography and maps. Brad introduced me to another explorer of things both arcane and mystical, David Hatcher Childress whose World Explorers Club details his global journeys. Childress’ books can be found at Adventures Unlimited Press, along with books on everything from ancient science and conspiracy and history to UFOs and Tesla technology.

Claudia Sloan at Tallfellow and Smallfellow Press is following in the publishing footsteps of her father, Larry Sloan of Price, Stern, Sloan and Mad Libs fame. It was my pleasure to previously cover a reading from Tallfellow’s Doing It For the Money: The Agony and Ecstasy of Writing and Surviving in Hollywood, featuring true tales from some of Hollywood’s most accomplished—and most despicably treated–screenwriters. Now, screenwriter-turned-psychologist Dennis Palumbo (My Favorite Year) is their latest author. From Crime to Crime has short fiction ranging from a group of suburban husbands who stumble into crime-solving to a poor patent clerk, named Albert Einstein, who tracks a turn-of-the-century serial killer.

My dear friend Katerina Makris (who studied writing with my mother, Mona) was herself a hit with Sophia, her irresistible rescue dog, as we walked the aisles of the South Hall. Co-authored with Shelly Frost, the book Your Adopted Dog from Lyons Press resonated with so many book publishing folks we met during our all-too-brief time together. In fact, we bumped into another good pal—and animal rescue advocate—in Jane Velez-Mitchell. The former L.A. news anchor and frequent cable TV crime news analyst has her own tome, now out in paperback; Secrets Can Be Murder (Simon & Schuster) covers 21 cases, from Hollywood horrors to Bible Belt brutality, but all with a keen psychological perception that makes her a respectful and brilliant expert on such shocking cases.

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After walking miles of carpeted concrete, I gladly partook of a party or two, during BEA. I dragged my happy, overstimulated and frazzled carcass to the William Turner Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica for a party co-sponsored by Los Angeles Magazine and Black Clock, the literary journal from the MFA program at CalArts. There I was pleased to see my old UCLA Extension instructor buddy Bruce Bauman, author of And the Word Was, (Other Press) and his wife, Suzan Woodruff whose mind-expanding paintings are repped by Turner. Bruce recently received a COLA grant for literature and I am hoping the film people who have optioned And the Word Was are actually going to do something with his awe-inspiring tale of two worlds, New York and New Delhi. There at the Turner, as well, I had a chance to congratulate Steve Erickson on the overwhelming critical success of his eighth and latest novel, Zeroville (Europa Editions). As the L.A. Times put it, Zeroville “manages to wipe clean the presumptions typically guiding the Hollywood Novel,” and how often does that happen?

Gore Vidal said, “Every time a friend of mine succeeds, a little something inside of me dies.” I appreciate Vidal’s honesty and his work, but every time a friend of mine succeeds, without fostering a conflict of interest, I want to tell the world.

More than Fair–Festival of Books

chrishedges4.jpg [Chris Hedges, author of American Fascists.]

If one needs a welcoming indication of Spring, other than pretty nature photos on one’s calendar or the insane, chattering mockingbirds behind my home in the Sherman Oaks hills, there is always the L.A. Times Festival of Books, which completed its 12th incarnation April 27-28.

Among the vendor booths and panels, I found Jason Reitman, writer-director of the brilliant film satire Thank You for Smoking, based on Christopher Buckley’s novel, signing and giving away copies of the screenplay at the Writers Guild Foundation booth. Newmarket Press has published the shooting script.

Emmy-winning writer Merrill Markoe, author of It’s My F—ing Birthday, brightened a humorous fiction panel with her wacky perambulations on dogs, which she insists “are like exhange students from Neptune.” She sensed that if a dog were a songwriter, he/she would write songs like “I’ll Never Stop Saying Hello.” She claims her mother’s earliest reaction to Markoe’s writing was to say, “Well, I don’t happen to care for it but I pray I’m wrong.”

The abyss in Iraq and America’s future was on the minds of many of the 463 authors at the FOB. Chris Hedges, whose latest work is American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, participated in two panels, excoriating “a theology of despair, a pornographic vision of violence, portrayed in the Left Behind series.” Robert Scheer, author and editor of TruthDig.com, shared one of these panels with Hedges on Iraq. “We do care about the oil and exploiting it. Our contractors have ripped them off every which way to Sunday. That’s what’s going on with this reconstruction. There are industries in this country that benefit from war.”

Every year, I look forward to a science panel and the L.A. Times’ own K.C. Cole (Mind Over Matter: Conversations with the Cosmos) recalled the recently passed Kurt Vonnegut and his exceptional writing on evolution in Galapagos, as well as Cole’s mentor, J. Robert’s little brother Frank Oppenheimer, who said, “Artists and scientists are the official noticers of society. They notice things other people either don’t look at or are not trained to see.” A tribute to Cole and the tenacity of the writer: She sent her first article to an editor at the NY Times Magazine, got rejected, sent it to a second editor there and wound up on the cover.

If He’s Harlan, Let Him Go

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The Writers Guild Foundation, on April 19, saluted the life and career of a world-class crank. Harlan Ellison has won a galaxy of awards, Hugo, Nebula, Writers Guild, Edgar Allen Poe, as well as Emmy and Grammy nominations, for his science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery writing.

Foundation Executive Director Angela Kirgo began the evening at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills by recalling her husband George’s biographical summary: “Characters like Harlan Ellison rarely come this way. This is a fact I sometimes contemplate with great relief.”

A work-in-progress DVD biography of Ellison began with his friend Robin Williams asking him true or false questions. Ellison confirmed it was true he leaped at an ABC exec who messed up a script of his for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and broke the guy’s hip. He confirmed he once sent a dead badger to a publishing house in New York. “I sent it fourth class,” he mused happily. “And it was summer.”

Despite his diminutive stature, Ellison is clearly a force to be reckoned with. The Ohio State professor who told him he had no writing talent received a copy of everything Ellison published when he began writing full time. The first year yielded around 100 stories.

With more than 75 books and 1400 stories under his belt, it is wonderful to see time has not mellowed Ellison very much. The doc yielded a marvelous rant toward Warner Brothers, when he was asked to provide a free interview for a DVD. As for those with less than critical faculties, Ellison told the packed WGA Theater, “No, you are not entitled to your opinion. You’re entitled to your informed opinion. Otherwise, you’re just babbling hot air, farts in the wind.”

For the man who was a nitroglycerine truck driver in North Carolina, a singer with the likes of Bill Evans and Charles Mingus, a guy who helped paint the Brooklyn Bridge upside down in a leather harness, his WGA tribute was well earned. His unfettered, brave and perhaps frightening imagination is to be cherished by those who subscribe to his motto: “You must never be afraid to go there.”

Sandler’s Lists

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The TV Writer’s Workbook: A Creative Approach to Television Scripts by Ellen Sandler (Delta, trade paperback, $15, April 2007.)

Ellen Sandler could fairly be billed as the Dalai Lama of television writing. It is not clear if she wears orange robes when writing. (There is a swathe of orange on the book’s cover.) What is known and cannot be denied is that she defines, paradigmatically, the medium as one that is simple but not easy. She explores the consciousness of those who create sitcoms and episodic dramas in The TV Writer’s Workbook with a lucid, wise sensibility and wry detachment that avoids pomposity and yet, paradoxically, establishes her guru status. Not that her credentials are for nothing, including her Emmy nomination while Co-Executive Producer on the hit show Everybody Loves Raymond, and her work on more than 25 prime-time shows plus the pilots she’s created for network and cable television.

Sandler stresses that in commercial television, there is a form to be followed but it does not mean that the writing, especially in situation comedies, should be formulaic. And her philosophy is supported by the structure of the book. Any how-to on TV writing would be expected to have chapters on premise, structure, theme, plot, story, and so on. One might get appendicitis without an appendix on resources. The thesaurus is, in a word, essential.

But beyond all this, what helps this crafty tome sparkle are some unexpected touches. In TV format, she opens the book describing how her career in New York theatre, specifically a play she wrote and directed starring Rhea Perlman, led to her first job in TV, writing for James Brooks and a series called Taxi.

Then, there is a breakdown of the elements in the rather tasty Raymond episode she wrote, “No Fat.” Sandler sprinkles throughout attributions to others who have helped her along the way. Perhaps her being a member of the experimental Open Theatre in New York, as a performer, helping shape pieces improvisationally, better prepared her for a career in television than anything else could have. When she is not providing extremely useful and clear writing exercises, her prose reflects the traits that are ideal to this collaborative medium, generosity of spirit and lack of egotism.

And that applies to the breakdown of an email exchange with a potential consulting client, who despite all best intentions, completely botches her approach to enlist Sandler’s advice and aid. While most writing books are laden with pronouncements on the craft, very few have so much insider dope on business decorum. In particular, Sandler has priceless thoughts on organizing readings of one’s work and networking in social settings without seeming like a Depression-era fruit vendor.

At the heart of the book, too, is how important heart is to writing for television. It’s not just formatting and jokes. Sandler reminds us that commercial TV sitcoms like Raymond become hits because they tap into a humanity that expands the humor. It is no surprise that Ray Romano and show runner Phil Rosenthal called upon their own family and married lives to create their story lines, and relied on talented staffers, like Sandler, to bring the influence of their own experiences into the show. When Sandler recalls her own father’s negation of her creative abilities and how it influenced one of the episodes she wrote, there can be no better example of how the best of TV writing wrings laughter or creates tension but also hits us where we live.