NoirCon 2014 – Part 1

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I headed off to NoirCon. It was a misty morning so the fog floated over the Hudson as the train rumbled south. Before you knew it we were passing under the George Washington and pulling into Penn Station. After a relatively quick and painless change, I was on my way to Philly. I’d already missed the Noir at the Bar night, but there’s only so many classes I can cancel (>_<) I got some grading done that night and was ready to dive into the dark the next morning.

And dark it was, kicking off with Steve Hodel‘s talk on the Black Dahlia killer — or as he called him, “Dad” O.O Yes, really — and worse, there’s a lot more murders he can be convincingly linked to in that time. There’s a good write up at Out of the Gutter, but suffice to say the crowd was riveted, convinced and horrified all at once. What must it have been like to put the pieces together (after his father’s death) and come to that realisation. Hodel, who refers to himself as the ‘black sheep’ because he became a cop, has done a thorough job. If you’re a true crime aficionado I highly recommend checking out Hodel’s work. Because the real gutting thing is that the most gruesome aspects of the killing was the ‘murder as art’ angle. Deeply disturbing stuff.

Page & Richard

Page & Richard

Of course the first thing was catching up with friends like Richard Godwin and his lovely wife Page.

Next up were Jean W. Cash, Joan Schenkar, and Robert Polito, biographers of Flannery O’Connor, Jim Thompson and Patricia Highsmith respectively to talk about the links and rifts between Highsmith and O’Connor who seem to have similarly dark imaginations but could not be more different — nor could the two biographers. Schenkar is a hoot and as lively and loopy as her superb tome on Highsmith while Cash is a genteel and soft-spoken academic, but together they gave great anecdotes and talked about the few chance interactions between the authors, two of the greatest American voices of the 20th century.

Over lunch we got to see a short film courtesy of Jeff Wong, Ross Macdonald—In the First Person (1970), which had been rescued from obscurity where the author talks about his writing and life with Margaret Millar, whose work is coming back into print and long-overdue recognition. Always interesting to see writers talk about process. Which is my excuse for skipping the next panel to have a drink with Patti Abbott — yes, after all these years we finally got to meet face to face after a lot of near misses. Skål!

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I’m going to have to do this in pieces as I have to run just now, so if you want to skip ahead read fellow Existential Noir panelist Carole Mallory’s write up.

Writer Wednesday: Romanticism

Shakespeare by Fiennes

Shakespeare by Fiennes

I’ve aimed to focus these posts on the project How to Keep Writing with a Full Time Job but allow me a bit of a digression today for something that bears repeating. I used to give my creative writing students a handout on the first day to demonstrate the difference between a dilettante and writer — the basic idea is that a writer writes. I showed this to my upper division course this semester because I’m doing my ‘Writers in Motion’ course again.

This is the course that led to my Fulbright project, which looked at the status of writers in the digital age. The topic is films about writers. Yes, there are eleventy million of them, so it’s always a challenge to choose. We kicked off with Shakespeare in Love (you know how I love Stoppard) a fun film that really sets the tone for the other films that follow.

One of my favourite bits is the writing scene: there’s a whole ritual. Will spins the quill in his hand, spins around, turns his chair sideways and so on, to get in the mood. Like a ball player with a lucky pair of socks, he tries to capture the muse through repeating a ritual. He also looks for lovers to supply story lines (that end up ‘creating’ Romeo & Juliet and a little bit of Twelfth Night.

This is the message of most films about writers: go do writing-worthy stuff then write about it. Take lovers, do drugs, travel the globe, above all be dramatic and wild.

Many young writers or wannabe-writers try to do this. They try to live as fast and as furious as all the romantic depictions (often created by the writers themselves) suggest are crucial to the process. They think they have to out-drink Hemingway, out-Bowery Bukowski, out-depress Plath or out-do Sand in lovers.

Well, it’s not necessary. Trust me. You can live a boring life and still have plenty to say. Let writing be the world you want it to be. If you don’t want to take my word for it, how about Flannery O’Connor’s?

“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

You have the material: just write. Settle in, make your routine, and the muse will come to you. Write wild.

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

~ Pablo Picasso

Tuesday’s Overlooked A/V: Wise Blood

Flannery O’Connor’s masterpiece of Southern gothic, Wise Blood, received an unusually effective film treatment. It probably had a lot to do with the cantankerous John Huston helming it, someone with enough weight to throw around to keep it cleaving to the same dark vision that inspired it. For those who sneer at “literary” it might be good to remind you that the first chapter initially came to life as her master’s thesis and other portions of it drew on stories first published in Mademoiselle, Sewanee Review, and Partisan Review.

That said, I doubt her work would get through a modern writers workshop.

Huston’s 1979 film scores with a fantastic cast: no one could capture the strangeness of Hazel Motes like Brad Dourif. I can’t find the name of the actress who played Leora Watts, but she fearlessly capture the role. Of course Harry Dean Stanton and Amy Wright as the preacher and his Sabbath Lily shine. Ned Beatty and William Hickey — and of course Huston as the fire-and-brimstone grandfather who messes up Hazel in the first place.

I caught this just before leaving Ireland; I hadn’t seen it many years but it was just as good as I remembered and even more chilling. The strangeness of Dan Schor’s Enoch Emory has a wistfulness that my younger self overlooked, a terrible heartbreak and loneliness.

The finale of the film can’t quite catch the uncanniness of the novel, but it does an amazing job with adapting a complex and strange book. “No man with a good car needs to be justified.” Coming from Michigan, that phrase had even more resonance for me. It speaks to the dream of mobility and freedom that the car industry sold in the lush times of consumer dreams in the post-war era — while papering over those atrocities. They came out in strange ways sometimes, as they did for Hazel Motes. Look it up, and enjoy a little trip with “the Church of Christ Without Christ. Where the blind can’t see, the lame don’t walk, and the dead stay that way.”

Check out the round up of worthies over at Todd‘s.