Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Friday, March 30, 2001





Well, we knew chaos would erupt before the digital revolution was over, but goodness, what strange developments are splooching out of the POD (print-on-demand) movement.

At a booksellers' workshop last week, a piece of paper was passed around that left everyone agape and agawk.

It showed a print-on-demand book from Lightning Source, the digital printing arm at Ingram, offered by Ingram at a short discount (25%) as a nonreturnable book.

How could this be, the booksellers wondered, when that same title is offered by Random House as a returnable book at standard trade discounts (40%+)?

Is it possible that Lightning Source (and other POD publishers) are amortizing expensive POD machines by making booksellers pay a leetle extra?

If that's so, what a shame - the last thing PODs need is another black mark to make their stigma even worse; and the very last thing independent booksellers need is to lose more money on PODs or any other fashion of the book biz.



At that same all-day workshop, mystery writer Laurie R. King talked about how it feels to have written 11 successful books without any training as a writer.

King said she didn't start writing fiction until 35, after the younger of her two children started preschool, thus freeing up three whole mornings a week. Having earned her Master's at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley but with no background as a novelist, she found writing to be "like learning a new language," she told the booksellers.

"You can study language by going to school and memorizing verb forms, vocabulary, gender usage and the like," she said. "Or you can just immerse yourself in the spoken word, picking it up as you go.

"In both cases you'll reach a point where you can turn out sentences on your own, but for people like me, without formal study in creative writing, the difference is that I'm re-inventing the wheel all the time, making up essentially my own personal language."

I'm always astounded by authors who write so instinctively. It must be like falling into an abyss. But King said she was comfortable with that mid-air feel. She never uses an outline, never sticks to her book proposal and usually writes only "two scenes ahead" without knowing where the story's going.

"Intellectually I couldn't tell you [the plot while writing it], but I have a sense of it usually. If it isn't clear, that's when I get [what other people call] writer's block, which means something's happening in the book I can't see yet.

"That's when I go off and clean the oven - a great way of getting the mind straight. You threaten the mind with having to attack a dirty closet and find yourself saying, 'That's okay! I know what's wrong with the book.' The writing can go pretty well after that."

King has been something of an anomaly on the mystery scene. Not only did she begin writing comparatively late in life, she had the audacity to re-invent Sherlock Holmes as an older character who's in retirement until a very young protagonist - Mary Russell - convinces him otherwise.

At the same time, just when you'd think the author would want to establish the Russell books as a building series, King was stoking up another mystery series featuring San Francisco cop Kate Martinelli, AND she was writing other novels the trade calls "stand-alones."

Her latest book, a stand-alone called "Folly," was suggested by her editor at Bantam, and, though King resisted it at first, was knocked out in three very intensive months by the indefatigable author.

"Folly" is perhaps King's deepest, densest and darkest novel to date. In it, a mentally imbalanced grandmother who's tried suicide many times attempts to claim life one more time by rebuilding her family's house on the San Juan Islands off Puget Sound in Washington state.

Early on, the narrative seems heavy-handed - a lot of family, psychiatric and natural history comes first - but to watch the protagonist's old antagonisms and weariness give way to a new innocence, a new purity, so late in life is to feel that rebirth is possible for anyone.

"Folly" was chosen as a Book Sense 76 pick in the March/April list, which caused someone to ask: "How do you as a writer feel about Book Sense? Are you aware of it? Does it matter to you?"

"I have seen a lot of Book Sense flyers and stickers," King responded. "At Powell's they have a Book Sense table when you come in, though of course 'Folly' wasn't on it when I was there ("It fell off the table!" a bookseller yelled).

"But in fact I've been waiting for news that readers can order books online from Book Sense. I am forever being interviewed on radio where the host says, 'And you can get them from Amazon!' I'd love to give the audience an alternative."

"You can now!" the audience yelled, and once she understood how, King said it was "great" that she had solved this mystery and would make such announcements.

"I think the general reading public is gradually becoming aware that there is a difference between bookstores, and that an independent bookstore is a thing you notice and nurture, rather than seeing it as just part of background of life - part of giant shopping malls and such."

Excellent, Laurie! Let's take our lead from King - if authors want to correct interviewers about the new power of independent booksellers, let's spread the word about Book Sense to every author we see from now on.



Pardon the lateness of Friday's column but the staff has charted a plane to New York to further assist Terry Ryan (see #223 and #224) publicize her book about her mother. For the next four weeks we'll move to a one-column-a-week format, beginning Thursday with "TERRY MEETS THE SPACKLE QUEENS."



Dear Holt Uncensored:

I don't know if you saw Emma Thompson in "Wit" on HBO Saturday. Pulitzer-winning play, classy production, luminous acting, harrowing subject matter. One of the most touching scenes occurs toward the end. The protagonist is close to death, and her old English professor visits her hospital room. This woman has just bought books for a five-year-old grandchild. Seeing the protagonist's condition, she holds her like a child and reads "The Runaway Rabbit" to her (especially poignant as these are both brilliant, rigorous and unsentimental academics who've spent their lives

dissecting the writings of John Donne). In the HBO production--directed by Mike Nichols--the professor enters carrying a Barnes & Noble shopping bag, the logo prominently displayed and, before attending to her dying former

student, sets it carefully on a table, facing full front.

Talk about a jolt! It was all I could do to refocus my attention on the action. I can't believe the producers of "Wit" were this desperate for money.

Juliet Wittman

Holt responds: I also felt appalled, for two reasons: The original play was incredibly moving, yet the odd part about it and one of the reasons the playwright is so gifted is that for the first two-thirds of the play, everyone in the audience is just falling off our chairs laughing at how funny the protagonist, Vivian Bearing, can be (very brash, tough, blunt, unsubtle) and how much she teaches us about John Donne (especially the poem we see reflected on Emma Thompson's body in the HBO version but never really understand because of the HBO abridgement). In this poem, the poet starts to stand up to God and then caves in and pleads for mercy, as mortals are wont to do in the end. As a student, Prof. Bearing thinks this is another conceit but she has to learn in the play that calling out to God from our emptiness and fear and in complete surrender is one of the journeys humans may need to undertake (this happens to Vivian when the pain overcomes her).

So she begins this play believing that art has already "saved" her - that learning Donne has toughened her spirit to such an extent that she can take even the dangerous chemo/radiation treatment the doctors give her without emotional support from friends or family (of whom she seems to have none). I know Mike Nichols and Emma Thompson, who wrote the HBO adaptation, had to cut the play in half, but to my mind they cut out the best parts - the searing, scathing laughter and the ability of Vivian to teach us just one poem by Donne and change our lives in the process. What they added were fabulous closeups you could just drink in like a sponge, and while I think Emma Thompson did a marvelous job playing a much subtler Vivian, she also made Vivian less combative, without fury, steely but unforthcoming too often.

But yes, that last scene with the former mentor (an imagined scene in the play, by the way) is unbelievably moving in both HBO and actual play but WHAM! that B&N bag is so blaring and inappropriate that it actually STEALS THE SCENE. It wasn't necessary to establish the fact that the professor has been to a bookstore - she explains it upon entering Vivian's room. And HBO couldn't have needed whatever money B&N might have paid for this, we know, since there were no other product placements in the show. So why distract us with an ad for B&N? Of all people to not understand what's at stake, Nichols, Thompson et al sure made a boo boo with this one.

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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