Monthly Archives: April 2009

The Million-Dollar Sure Thing

 

BRANDING OUR CHILDREN

Last week’s New York Times arts section had a story about a travel writer with an autistic son whose “wild temper tantrums” abated only when he was riding a horse.   

The travel writer had a bent for nonWestern medical traditions, so he and his wife took their son to Mongolia where shamans and horses helped the boy achieve “an amazing ‘recovery’ and ‘healing,’ ” or so the Times quotes the dad. He also said his son’s temper tantrums “all but disappeared” after the trip.

The story is meant to be inspiring, and it is, except for the many business deals that seem to trump and the son’s role in it all. For example:

1) the travel writer dad is well connected in NY, so before the trip he got a $1-million-plus advance from Little, Brown based on a 37-page proposal about the “prospective adventure.”  

2) Dad also took a filmmaker along to create a documentary. 

3) He made YouTube video of himself and his son riding a horse that “stoked interest” in the book’s auction. 

4) He optioned the feature film rights to the producers who made “Lord of the Rings” and “Golden Compass” — with himself as scriptwriter.

5) He says part of the advance is going to a ranch he’s founded to treat autistic kids who like horses. 

HOW THE BIG BOYS DO IT

I’m sure this travel writer dad started out with the idea of helping his son, and hey, maybe he needed to finance the trip so he started pulling deals together. It’s just worrisome to see every related industry kick in to make this a million-dollar sure thing with the boy as a much-scrutinized cog. Perhaps Dad realized he needed the PR value of creating the charity ranch in case somebody accuses him of exploiting both his son and autism. 

At the same time, the NYT article is written as a kind of a model scenario for writers. It says, This Is The Way the Big Boys Do It.  Don’t wait until you write the book or even know how your story ends. Build your power base now. Start the marketing process now. Remember Elizabeth Gilbert? She was writing magazine articles about exotic spas for the rich before jotting down a similar of “prospective adventure” submission, which earned her a sizeable advance that paid for an all-expenses trip around the world and resulted in “Eat Pray Love.” Continue reading

A Personal Look at ‘Tinkers’


One of the best qualities of a good book is that it stays with you long after book’s end — and occasionally adds something to personal experience. “Tinkers” by Paul Harding (reviewed here, and with publisher’s terrific  background story here) keeps doing that and more.

I find myself  pondering one passage -  passed over at first reading -  in which a father who has severe dementia wanders away from his family home in rural Maine. 

His son has watched his father “receding from human circumstance” and sets out to find him. 

As the boy walks through a corn field, he imagines “breaking an ear from its stalk, peeling its husk, and finding my father’s teeth lining the cob. They were clean and white, but worn like his. Strands of my father’s hair encased the teeth instead of cornsilk.”

Later “as I hiked through the woods, I imagined peeling the bark from a birch tree, the outer layers supple, like skin… I would cut a seam in the wood, prying it open an inch at a time, and find a long bone encased in the middle of the trunk.”

The Opposite of Death

These images provide another example of  “the opposite of death,” Harding’s notion that our bodies  are reabsorbed by nature in such a wondrous exchange of matter that the human mind tends to glorify and even itemize the body’s contributions.

Granted,  the boy’s vision of his father’s bodily parts reorganized in nature seems a bit fantastic. But like so much of this extraordinary book, events in the characters’ lives have an unseen effect on readers’ lives.  

This past week I remembered having a similar experience going to the theater in New York after the death of my brother, who was for many years a stage manager, director and producer. He won a Tony for “La Cage Aux Folles,” but his lengthy climb to success had stretched through many plays and musicals up and down ol’ Broadway. 

For a long time after he died I would attend a play and not just imagine him in rehearsal but see his tall (6’4″) body embedded in the smooth wood of the stage, or stretched along the proscenium walls, or shining down from the ornate chandelier. If I went to a theater where he once had a production going, unless the drama onstage proved absolutely riveting, I’d find myself weeping  right in the middle of the play, even if it was a comedy. 

The sense that my brother was there surrounding me would become so intense that I had to open my mouth to let the tears stream in so that others in the audience – who may have been falling off their chairs laughing  – wouldn’t be alarmed by the wipings and snortings of this strange escapee in their midst. Continue reading