by Pat Holt
Wednesday, March 23, 2005
'THE PRIZE WINNER' GOES TO THE MOVIES - PART I
Thanks to the many readers who inquired about the long silence that has stopped publication of this column since October. I admit to trying out a few jokes - the staff ran out to march for SpongeBob SquarePants - but things got too grim even in our vast editorial rooms for the usual joviality.
So let me tell this story of one book's incredible interlude with Hollywood and the sudden tragedy that befell us by describing the latest adventures of my partner Terry Ryan and her memoir, "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less." It's going to take three columns to tell it, but boy, what a story.
To read Part II, go to Column #393
To read Part III, go to Column #394
To read Part IV, go to Column #395
As many readers know, I've had a lot of fun writing about Terry (see www.holtuncensored.com/terry/index.html ) because "Tuff" (her childhood nickname) came to represent that Great Hope of U.S. Literature today - the chance that unknown and untried writers can successfully negotiate their way through an indifferent publishing system that has increasingly placed authors at the bottom of the pile.
Terry is not a best-selling writer - she is an old-fashioned *and typical* "backlist author," meaning that her book (originally published in hardcover in 2001) sells steadily if slowly (in its 2002 paperback edition) without benefit of advertising or continued publicity. The audience keeps spreading the word in its own quietly imploding way, and booksellers - most of them independent - continue to sense the need to keep it in stock.
So what a thrill it was going to be, I thought, to describe the migration last October of Terry, her nine siblings and their families to Toronto, where they not only visited the set of the movie adaptation of "Prize Winner"; they also took part in their own scene (and Terry had yet another scene).
[YOU CAN SCROLL THROUGH THIS IF YOU'RE TIRED OF MY DESCRIPTIONS OF THE BOOK]
Terry's memoir is about the contest era of the '50s and '60s, when Madison Avenue invited consumers to send in boxtops and coupons with jingles, poems and limericks extolling the wonders of advertised products.
Evelyn Ryan, Terry's mother, had a knack for filling out lines such as "I wonder where the yellow went" for Pepsodent toothpaste ("The yellow battled/As it went,/But it didn't make/A PepsoDENT)" or writing such hope-chest jingles for soap as "Dial is wonderful:/Sweet young things/Declare that Dialing/Gets those rings."
While her 10 kids were growing up and her alcoholic husband was drinking away a third of his paycheck, Evelyn began to win big - cars, jewelry, trips to Europe, bicycles, color TVs, a washer-dryer, full-sized jukebox. And she won small: dozens of clock radios, baseball gloves, toys, phonographs, watches, silverware, picture frames, accordion lessons and (Terry always gets a big laugh out of this one), three pairs of Arthur Murray shoes.
(Arthur Murray was a ballroom-dancing teacher who became famous during the early days of television.)
More than a jingle-writer, Evelyn had the gift of a poet like Ogden Nash and the sense of humor of housewife columnists like Peg Bracken or Erma Bombeck:
Victims share a symptom,
If there is a single, visual memory that the Ryan kids took from their childhood (and that Tuff makes unforgettable in the book), it's the picture of Mom Ryan standing at her ironing board, a pile of pre-sprinkled clothes on one side and her "contesting" notebooks on the other. There she worked out the kind of sparkling wordplay that make her entries distinctive even today, including this entry in a 25-words-or-less contest for that great segmented candy bar, Tootsie Roll.
For wholesome, toothsome, chewy goodness, Tootsie Rolls are right. Lots of nibbling for a nickel, And they show me where to bite.
In the book, Evelyn's originality as a "contester" saves the day time after time as she stands up against bill collectors, the Catholic Church and antiquated ideas about housewives.
But the big story in "Prize Winner" is the miraculous timing of Evelyn's biggest wins. When the family faced eviction from its rental home, Evelyn won a huge cash prize against 60,000 other entries that covered the down payment on a new house. Twelve years later, after her husband Kelly secretly took out a second mortgage on the house and drank away the payments, Evelyn stopped foreclosure proceedings when her entry won a Dr. Pepper contest over 240,000 competing entries.
[START READING AGAIN ALL YOU LAYABOUTS WHO SKIPPED THE ABOVE]
What a great idea for a movie, yes? So thought Robert Zemeckis, the director of "Forrest Gump," "Back to the Future," "Castaway" and "Polar Express," who optioned the book and gave the adaptation job to screenwriter Jane Anderson ("How to Make an American Quilt," "It Could Happen to You").
Jane had just turned her own stage play, "Normal," into an HBO movie that she also directed starring Jessica Lange and Tom Wilkinson. Nominated for two Golden Globes (no mean feat in the year of "Angels in America"), "Normal" is set in the very cornfields of the Midwest that "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio," would inhabit, and just like any reader of Terry's book, Jane fell in love with Evelyn Ryan.
FORGET ALL YOU'VE HEARD ABOUT HOLLYWOOD
Terry's first lesson of filmdom was to disregard all those stories everyone has heard about Hollywood's disinterest in, and dismissal of, authors of books. True, books have long been sold to the movies for their titles only and gutted to the bone so yet another run-of-the-mill love/war/adventure/assisted-suicide story can be retold. Authors have routinely been given notice never to request taking a look at the script, let alone have an opinion, or be allowed to set foot on a sound stage.
For Terry, however, the reverse was true right from the beginning. Jane Anderson flew to San Francisco to visit Tuff and see for herself what the family had discovered after Evelyn's death - the contents of seven dressers and a huge cedar chest that Terry had loaded into a rented van in her home town of Defiance, Ohio, and hauled to San Francisco.
This was a treasure trove for Jane. She would open a drawer or lid and find original contest entry blanks in their fading newsprint clippings; perfectly preserved letters from sponsors ("Dear Mrs. Ryan: Congratulations on your new Motorola color TV set. Signed, Ed Sullivan"), the dozen now-famous ironing-board notebooks; press photos of "The Winning Mom and Her Family" (one of which appears on the cover of Terry's book); tickets to the football game where eldest son Dick received his First Prize bicycle along with $5,000 cash that saved the Ryans from eviction; and uncountable poems and jingles that never went anywhere but are a joy to read today.
There are moms who can cook,
The respect that Jane brought to everything Tuff had saved after Evelyn's death, and her delight at the way Terry told her mother's story in the book, were to set the tone for all that would happen during the writing and - because Zemeckis eventually turned over the directing job to Jane as well - the filming of "Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" (the only change is that the "The" has been dropped).
Terry and her youngest sister Betsy (who wrote the epilogue for the book) not only took Jane to Defiance to see the house their mother won, the Catholic school they attended, the parks, the library (a Carnegie classic) and what Tuff calls "the slow collision" of the Maumee and Auglaize rivers in front of Fort Defiance. They also drove Jane through the cornfields that surround the town and brought her to nearby Payne, Ohio, where she met Dortha Schaefer, their mother's best friend and president of the contesting club called The Affadaisies (so named for the affidavit that would come in the mail requiring winners to prove their identity).
Jane absorbed it all like a sponge. She wrote a script that made Evelyn's love for the quiet hilarity of life as boldly cinematic as it was in real life. Here we see "Narrator Evelyn," who speaks directly to the camera to explain how contests work, and "Character Evelyn," who tries to create a semblance of order with 10 boisterous children and one boozy Dad.
And while the pastoral, verdant, river-steamed Defiance, Ohio, was the kind of Small Town USA that itself acts as a character in the book, and everyone including Jane hoped it would be the setting for a movie shot on location, here is the great book-to-movie lesson we all needed to learn: The difference in cost to shoot this film in Canada as opposed to Defiance was so dramatic (in the millions of dollars) that Jane had no choice but to take the crew to Toronto with its nearby towns of leafy streets and sleepy downtowns bearing a 1950s look.
Toronto, in fact, was famous at the time as a magnet for Hollywood. Its tax breaks for film productions and state-of-the-art sound stages had already saved the day for many a low-to-medium-budget movie. The analogy we heard quoted by veteran wags was that barely a minute in the movie, "A New York Minute," had been shot in New York - the rest of it was filmed in Toronto.
Then there was the conventional wisdom in filmdom that says when you have a movie about a big family, you don't have the time to single out every child as a character because you're too busy telling the story. Look at "The Sound of Music," people said. Viewers are lucky that even two of the kids' characters are developed enough to be recognizable, let alone remembered.
Even while writing the book, Terry had been advised against creating a distinctive personality for each of the 10 Ryan children - let alone for the chicken, cats, bird and mouse that Evelyn Ryan seemed to be raising at the same time.
But the Ryans, as the world would soon learn, are an all or nothing family - no one is singled out; so, once you get to know 'em, everyone is singled out. And if Mom Ryan decided that Charlie the Chicken would be part of that family (at least in his impressionable years when the family cat adopted him and he later acted like a confused attack dog), that's the way Terry would write the book.
Jane wanted the same depth of character for each individual in the movie, so she cast not one but at least two and sometimes three child actors for every Ryan sibling, because the movie covers a 20-year period and the kids grow up fast.
She found former "Cheers" actor Woody Harrelson to play Terry's father with all his seeming contradictions - drunken outrage, inner decency, resentment and redemptive love - and Laura Dern to play the key supporting role of Dortha Schaefer.
Best of all, Jane found another young mother, an actress who had already been nominated (four times) for an Academy Award, to play Evelyn Ryan's role, and this was the astounding Julianne Moore.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
Please capitalize each letter of "patriot" when you refer to the legislation passed after 9/11. New acronyms deserve such treatment, and The PATRIOT Act hasn't yet (I hope) gained the time-tested respectability of "Nasa." As a source of so much good information, somehow you fell victim to its author's political doublespeak.
Gosh, how could a good citizen be so /unpatriotic/ to oppose such an Act?
Holt responds: I've avoided capitalizing the USA Patriot Act as a tiny gesture of dissent because it's just a stumblebum acronym. Look at it: "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001." Aside from its somnambulant effect, the attempt of this mouthful of dirt clods to instill patriotism isn't even good propaganda.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
About your worry - "This Could Not Be True: Author's Home Invaded? Work Seized by FBI?" - that government agents are barging into homes of writers and artists and confiscating their property:
Yes, it is true. See http://www.caedefensefund.org/ and the attachment.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I also would like to terminate my subscription. Your blatant attempt to inspire the few UNDECIDED voters, though I doubt there are any among the liberal book arenas, is in poor taste, especially when you wrote, "I'M NOT SURE IF I BELIEVE THIS STORY..."
I hope you survive the next four years of G.W. Bush. Because the FUNDAMENTALIST LIBERALS who support KERRY due to the ANYBODY BUT BUSH spin to politics are probably going to backfire.
Even HILLARY doesn't want Kerry to win; she isn't spending the $60 million they acquired during the convention from corporate donors. Plus, she forced Kerry to take on a flake of a campaign manager. Hillary is the PUPPETMASTER of the DNC. And even Kerry knows he made a deal with the devil since McCain turned him down.
Enjoy yourself, because if the far left takes over, even more foreign owners and outsourced jobs will happen; i. e., Hillary' s deal with a UK helicopter company to make the choppers for the President over the American Sikorsky.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
A romance novelist had her home invaded by the FBI! I couldn't believe what I was reading. I've obviously been uneasy with Bush's "Homeland Security." All the secrecy and checks on ordinary citizens seem so un-American. But I never worried about it personally. It could never happen to me, I said smugly. Now I'm not so sure.
I'm a writer of fiction, which includes mysteries. That means research into such things as poison, firearms, psychopathic killers and . . . well you get the idea.
I'm also a consultant to small business in the field of employment law and safety. That means research on laws and how they're applied and what a small business should do to protect itself from the government.
How do I do all this? Research on the Internet, purchase of research books on criminal methods, library utilization and subscriptions. Maybe Homeland Security has asked Book Passage, my favorite book store, for a list of the books I've purchased?
I've also actively voiced my contempt for the current administration's brown- shirt, Gestapo mentality. Why shouldn't I? This is a free country, isn't it? But maybe I should be afraid, and maybe you should to for printing stuff like this.
Bonnie de Clark
Dear Holt Uncensored,
A slight correction to your Oct. 29th story, "THIS COULD NOT BE TRUE: AUTHOR'S HOME INVADED? WORK SEIZED BY FBI?"
The circulation of specific titles is not automatically watched at libraries by the feds. It's possible, if only a limited number of libraries have a book the FBI is interested in, they might obtain records from those libraries to see who has checked out that book. And of course it would be illegal for the librarians to tell anyone they'd been subpoenaed, but if a library's check-outs were watched routinely I can't imagine librarians wouldn't find a way to tell their patrons "you're being watched." There's nothing illegal about informing the public about the law itself, just its execution, and many libraries (and bookstores) have warned their patrons. True, if you want to avoid the risk of having your circulation records subpoenaed, using the books in the library is a safer bet than checking them out. But the feebs are not watching every library constantly.
There's a fair amount of misinformation out there about the Patriot Act. Any act that has built into it a gag order is designed to do that. One writer claims on her web site a certain percentage of public libraries has been searched. It could be true, but there's no way she can say X percent because we don't know. The American Library Association is trying to find out, with the help of a Carnegie Foundation grant, but at this point the law is written to make it illegal to share information that will tell us how it's being used. One thing we do know--neither libraries nor booksellers are FBI stooges.
Nothing like misinformation to give John Ashcroft and Dick Cheney a chance to shake their heads and say sadly, "how paranoid can you get? Silly people. We don't care what you're reading--unless you're a terrorist."
We need to get our facts right. And when we can't, we need to make sure everyone knows why it's so danged hard to get them right. They're using fear to intimidate us. The last thing people who love books and ideas need to do is to play into their hands by trying to fill in the gaps with downright inaccuracies.
That's their job.
Holt responds: I think a number of libraries by now have posted a sign warning patrons that records of the books they borrow and the Internet pages they read may be examined by government agents. In Santa Cruz, Calif., the signs have stated that the USA Patriot Act "prohibits library workers from informing you if federal agents have obtained records about you." Thank heaven for librarians. They take the fight for the First Amendment into the open whether our government's protectors of freedom like it or not.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
First of all, I loved your column today on the Patriot Act, something that scares the crap out of me, but I'm actually writing to you about epublishers and POD press--I write for four of them (similar to Zumaya, actually) and have been since 1998--Hard Shell Word Factory www.hardshell.com, Ellora's Cave www.ellorascave.com, Loose Id LLC www.loose-id.com and Changeling Press www.changelingpress.com.
I'm not sure how familiar you are with the world of epublishing, but it's a growing business--Ellora's Cave, for instance, which publishes erotic romances (romantica) internationally, is a multi-million dollar business with both a domestic and an international market. Our books are in Waldenbooks and Borders all over the country (print) and sell quite well in the European market. For many authors, epublishing is the chance to publish those stories that are "outside the box" that so many traditional publishers' guidelines mandate. (where else could I sell my shape shifting erotic wolf stories!)
These are not vanity presses...I am paid excellent royalties after my submitted work is accepted, the story goes through a thorough editing process, cover art is provided, etc. My books are reviewed by the same sites reviewing traditionally published works and they more than stack up against the NY pubs...if you're at all interested in this growing business, please take a look at my websites: www.katedouglas.com (traditional) and www.katedouglas.com/eroticromance for the adult material.
I love the fact I can write the stories the way I want, without restrictive guidelines as to content. I listen to my readers and respond to their requests whenever possible, and I can honestly say I've never had more fun writing in my over 30 years in this business as I have since going with epublishing.
Holt responds: To think I have been worrying that this is the worst time to be an author, especially if one is not embraced by the mainstream. Hearing from a writer who's happy with her royalties and loves creating "stories the way I want" is a rare delight.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
You wrote that George Bush uses "double-coded signals" by weaving Biblical words into his speeches to show the Christian Right he is one of them. You said the bestselling "Left Behind" series of post-Rapture novels by Tim LaHaye, in which children and babies are the first to be called to heaven when Christ returns, was deliberately evoked in Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education policy. You added:
"The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is both a political disaster, and a phony ploy, It is a nudge-nudge, wink-wink coded message to the Right to keep on voting for Bush, because he is your man in the White House."
Wow! What an interesting idea/connection. And it certainly is a phony ploy, as testing, which is what this Act has come to be, primarily, has nothing to do with actual teaching/learning. Plus, it assumes that everyone should be exactly the same little automaton, with no regard for individual differences/skills/interests, etc.
Laurel Reinhardt, Ph.D., former psychologist, author
Dear Holt Uncensored,
Only "dozens" unsubscribed from Holt Uncensored because of your comments on the "Left Behind" series of books about the world after the Rapture? I find that doubtful. I'd have figured it would be much more. Although I'm tempted myself to unsubscribe, I won't. Although I strongly disagree with your opinions on the subject. I can't believe how shocked and offended I was by your caustic comments, to the point of attack. Over the year or so that I've read your column, I've never read such deep-seated animosity from you. It scared me. Perhaps your convictions aren't all so different than those "evil fundamentalists."
Honestly, I don't know enough about Tim LeHaye's previous history, but I do believe in the message of Left Behind. It is not a message of hatred. For Christians like myself, who believe there will be judgment by God, Left Behind is an avenue for discussion and a way to imagine in our day what it could very well be like when Jesus comes again. As someone who has read every book in the Left Behind series, I believe there is nothing that came out of what I read that you professed it to be. Your comments were quite confusing to say the least. In ending, I just read the mail for your Issue #391 and I was disappointed that there were no strong comments in disagreement to what you said. You only posted comments that were in your support. Odd. Was there no one that disagreed with you?
Holt responds: More did come - read on.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
After reading your assassination attempt at Tim LaHaye, I wonder if you have ever stooped so low as to actually read the Bible, the most sold and read book in history. It may surprise you that Tim and Jerry's books actually are Biblical. And there are some good reasons to read the Bible. It is very historically accurate, written by over 40 authors over a period of several thousand years, and they DO NOT contradict each other. Amazing! The Bible itself says that it is God inspired, but still we humans seem to think we are smarter than our Creator, and thus seek to find other means to define ourselves. Certainly we would be less intelligent than the mammals to actually believe that our world had a creator and he was God and he provided a way out of sin for those that choose to believe Him. It's so much easier to believe that God is in everything, than to believe that we need to ask forgiveness for our failings.
You also seem to forget that this great nation was founded as one nation UNDER GOD, not one nation free from God. History has proven time and again, that nations with 'Anything goes' do just that - go! (Remember ancient Rome?)
One thing about Christianity that no other religion has in common - Christianity is about God reaching out to man! Find THAT in any other religion!
There used to be a saying that goes, "Don't knock it 'til you've tried it!"
Holt responds: Tell me this: Have you read any of the books or anything about the "Left Behind" series? What do you think of it?
Sheryl Simons responds: Yes, I have read many of the first books, and listened to some of the books on tape, eight so far. As a Christian, I do find them biblically based, in their interpretation, which is, of course fictional. While reading them, I could imagine that it could happen the way it is described in the books. I firmly believe in the "Rapture" - when, I don't know, the Bible says to be ready. I'm trying to do my best, as are we all in this crazy world. I can't imagine a world without a Savior - Jesus, who died for us all, but whom many reject.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
In my opinion the "Left Behind" series is in the category of Christian horror. It is fiction that uses the Bible and Christian beliefs - and they are certainly plenty scary. [Bestselling Christian novelist] Frank Peretti also writes Christian horror.
Marilyn Meredith, author http://fictionforyou.com
Dear Holt Uncensored,
It seems like any time anyone on the Right quotes the Bible, it's termed as code words. Any time anyone on the Left quotes the Bible it's great philosophy.
Lincoln said about the war in his second inaugural address," Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, 'the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether' ".
So, was Lincoln mixing religion and politics? He seemed to be saying that if the North lost the war it was the judgment of God. How would people respond to that today if Bush said that of Iraq?
Can you imagine what would be said of Bush if he invoked words like this on things like abortion?
Holt responds: Well, Abraham Lincoln was known as a person who spoke his mind; he didn't pretend he was somebody other than the man the American public had elected president. So he didn't have to sneak around and speak in coded terms to his "real" base of supporters when he was making speeches to the larger base of voters. As you show here, he just said flat out what he had to say. Or am I missing the point?
Arden replies: I can't remember when the code words thing came up. I suspect they were always used by everybody in what you call "a nudge, nudge, wink, wink" sort of way. But somehow or another we've become so paranoid that we think everybody speaks using code words. Consider this: Kerry going hunting in Ohio in camouflage, isn't that a code? To whom? Well, why then, if Bush said somewhere along the trail that, "I like to hunt," that might be considered somehow an evil coded message to the gun lobby, while Kerry becomes the Everyman?
I read "Evil: an Investigation" by Lance Morrow, and I highly recommend it to all. I came away believing that Evil as a force does exist outside of us, but not every tree that shakes is caused by evil forces.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I've just begun an activist role fighting the media conglomeration in our country. I found a link to your website to learn about "The Ten Mistakes" and while it was printing began to read the purpose of starting this site. It's so obvious, now that I read it, but I wasn't even thinking about bookseller conglomerates! I couldn't agree with you more! The sites that fight media conglomeration give me petitions to sign and instructions to further the cause. Do you have any recommendations? Its getting harder and harder to buy things in this country that don't contribute in some way to the demise of our democracy, or contribute to human rights abuses or hunger in foreign lands. A few weeks ago, on the Senate floor, I heard a speech where a lady promised herself to buy nothing but "made in America" gifts for Christmas...let's just say it was a lean Christmas. Her son made the remark "I don't know if we can have Christmas this year because I've never bought anything American! before." He was 13 years old.
I think the fight for independent media, now for me to include books, is the key to the survival of democracy in this country. Diversity is what fuels this great idea our founders had, and it's slowly being strangled. Well, thanks for the site. I will put it in the favorites column, tell my friends, and return often. Now it's off tomorrow to find an independent bookseller and purchase some history, with substance, from an obscure author!
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I recently read your "Ten Mistakes Writers Don't See (But Can Easily Fix When They Do)" featured in holtuncensored.com. Perusing the remainder of your site and writing, it occurred to me that, perhaps, you should add an eleventh:
Surrounding *words* with asterisks so as to *emphasize* them within the sentence. While this may fall under the "Repeats" section of your list (the mistake numbered one, no less), you take it to a level that would require a constant re-emphasis for complete aversion. You know, to be sure you don't *do* it anymore. Between you and the writers for LucasArts games, there won't be any asterisks left for the occasional user.
Otherwise, I really enjoyed your site and think more people ought to pay attention to their writing, as you candidly call out. It is, after all, a very *permanent* expression of what and how you think.
Lots of luck,
Holt shamefacedly replies: Good heavens, what a revelation, and thank you. It took years writing a newspaper column for me to stop using italics, and now I see that I've fallen back into the addiction as if asterisks were my online methadone. I'll add "Unnecessary Emphasis" to the list.
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.
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