Friday, May 30, 2008
Most people have heard the old blues legend about Robert Johnson. As a young and mediocre musician he encountered the devil at a crossroads one night and there sold his soul. In return his guitar was tuned in such a way that he could play anything he wanted. Johnson went on to write the greatest blues songs ever written, to become the greatest bluesman who ever lived.
You could argue modern literary non-fiction was born out of a similarly Faustian arrangement. It involved the creation of what is widely regarded as its foundation stone, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966).
Anyone who has seen Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the film Capote (2005) will have a fair idea of what its devilish bargain was: in depicting the brutal 1959 murder of a Holcomb family Capote cultivated the friendship and trust of their killers on death row.
In doing so he produced one of the biggest selling books of all time and what he regarded as a genuine artistic innovation, a new literary form he called “the non-fiction novel”. The title of In Cold Blood had a double meaning related to the killings of the Clutter family and the later execution of the Perry Smith and Richard ‘Dick’ Hickock. But it was also fatally suggestive of Capote’s exhaustive process over six years and dubious ethical decisions that would allow him to get his story in the end.
As a feat of research and the art of translating fact into literature it remains almost unbeatable. Despite Capote’s protestations of 100% accuracy, however, there were many minor elements in the book that have since been questioned, and one crucial closing scene that never took place in a graveyard. In Cold Blood had only the sordid, the sad and the horrifying on offer. Capote needed a happy ending for his masterpiece and he simply invented one.
It’s tempting now to imagine Capote out there on the crossroads between fiction and non-fiction with the devil whispering in his ear. Any non-fiction writer worth their salt – and many more who are not – have been out that way and heard the same call: Go ahead, bend the truth a little. Make a few things up if you need to. Who is going to know? And who cares anyway? All that matters is the story…
Aestheticizing reality involves a lot more than overcoming unhappy endings. It goes to the core of a literary non-fiction work and its veracity, and how any journalist or writer balances the need for storytelling and fine prose with a respect for the facts and their own role as the witness or so-called ‘reliable narrator’.
Can you be both a writer and a journalist – or is there at heart a tension, something irresolvable and necessarily opposed about these perspectives? There are undoubtedly times when the imperatives of journalism and literature contradict one another and a choice appears necessary: a compromise of artistic purpose versus a tempting moment of exaggeration, a lie of omission, a flight of fancy. Either inclination betrays the greater goals of any fully realized work, but the latter seems the more slippery slope into disaster.
And yet it’s naïve to presuppose a world of easily reduced absolutes where all is reportable and verifiable and unquestionably true. Even day-to-day, just-the-facts-ma’am journalism involves the editing and syntactical ‘cleaning up’ of quotes, the selective ordering of information, an emphasis on particular details and thereby their interpreted weight in a reader’s mind: ‘the angle’ your editor is looking for; the theme you are developing.
A comparative study of the front pages of The Australian versus The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age can be a case study in how so-called objective reporting comes up with different, even opposing views of the very same story. Having a plain style or sober voice is no guarantee against lies and distortion, anymore than longing to be a poet of reality makes you less reliable.
As I like to tell my students, there’s no such thing as objectivity but there is such a thing as balance, or finding some poise between what you think or feel about a story and what other voices are telling you. For that matter, the story may not even have a conclusion so much as a question mark underlying it. How will you capture that?
Despite the bizarre synchronicities and unbelievable-but-true coincidences that no self respecting novelist would (or even could) stoop to – but for that powerful rubber stamp on events that says ‘NON FICTION’ – reality is more often messy, unbalanced, incomplete and downright frustrating to hammer out into a narrative or poetic form. It is full of things that don’t fit, don’t make sense, do not develop or won’t end.
The American writer Richard Rhodes hints at this in an interview with Norman Sims for the 1984 book, The Literary Journalists (subtitled ‘The New Art of Personal Reportage’). Rhodes alludes to, “The kind of architectonic structures that you have to build, that nobody ever teaches or talks about, [which] are crucial to writing and have little to do with verbal abilities. They have to do with pattern ability and administrative abilities – generalship, if you will. Writers don’t talk about it much unfortunately.”
As much as the real-life gift of fully formed characters, dialogue, events and places, and yes, sometimes, even a near perfect story can be handed to you on a plate, it is often the obstructions and incongruities in a story that provide the most challenging opportunities for literary non-fiction writers. It is, in other words, it is the problem solving element of non-fiction as much as literary flair and journalistic precision which give it formal grace and adhere to its basic tenets: accuracy, and more deeply, believability.
The ‘truth’ then is that most self respecting literary non-fiction writers feel a pressure to make their work more precise than anything else on a subject in order to enhance and protect their prose indulgences. Time helps in this process and depth of research with it, in part to give the writer confidence to make literary leaps with the real-life material at hand. In part because it is the basic working gap between a journalist reporting on a story within a day, and a feature writer who spends weeks, even months developing an article.
The ultimate goals are depth not exaggeration; richness and complexity, rather than journalism’s formulaic tendencies toward compression and simplification. In egotistical terms you might also boil it down to this: the literary non-fiction writer wants to tell a true story more comprehensively and accurately, more soulfully and stylishly, than anyone else ever has – or ever will.
All very grand in theory, but in the past few years this undertaking seems to have gone out the window as one non-fiction hoax after another has been exposed in the book publishing realm. Narrative journalism has hardly been bullet-proof either as a series of scandals in the USA have blighted major newspapers and magazines: Stephen Glass at The New Republic, Jayson Blair at the New York Times, and the Pulitzer Prize nominee Jack Kelley from USA Today were all found to have extensively fabricated and plagiarized articles, sometimes for years.
James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, a memoir of the author’s time in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation clinic, was the major turning point in the publishing world. A Million Little Pieces became the second biggest selling book in the USA in 2005 thanks to Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club support. It all turned to mud when the author was revealed to have grotesquely exaggerated or made up numerous events. A groveling and somewhat shifty mea culpa from Frey now opens his book by way of half-baked apology.
Australia dealt with a similarly high-profile scandal in Norma Khouri’s Forbidden Love (2003), an account of the honour killing of the author’s best friend in Jordan. In 2004 the Sydney Morning Herald’s then Literary Editor, Malcolm Knox, would reveal Khouri to be the complete con-artist. None of her book was true.
As recently as March of this year two more books have been similarly exposed: Margaret B. Jones’ L.A. gang memoir Love and Consequences and Misha Defonseca’s autobiography, Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Year. In the well-reviewed Love and Consequences Jones purports to be a half Native American girl who ran drugs for ‘the Bloods’ in South-Central L.A. The all-white author Margaret Seltzer is actually from a middle class Episcopalian family and never went through the experiences she writes about.
Defonseca’s Holocaust memoir is also a complete invention. One would have thought a section on how she was raised as a cub by a pack of wolves, after collapsing in a forest while trying to make her way to her parents in Auschwitz, might have raised eyebrows sooner. The facts are that Defonseca sat out the war in comfort and safety, the Belgian Roman Catholic daughter of an alleged Nazi collaborator. After being exposed Defonseca released a statement: “The book is a story, it’s my story… It’s not the true reality, but it is my reality. There are times when I find it difficult to differentiate between reality and my inner world.”
The Australian non-fiction writer John Birmingham (Leviathan; Off One’s Tits) sees these scandals in frank terms. “I suspect that literary non fiction is like any growing market. It quickly attracts carpetbaggers. I can remember reading ten years ago about how nonfiction outsold it’s made up sibling by five to one. Rubbery figures, with no baseline, but enough to bring a cabal of shonks and bullshitters running to cash in. Related to that is the issue of identity politics. How many of the charlatans have fabricated personal histories? Almost all of them.”
Undoubtedly the narcissism of the times is a factor and the memoir is its natural home, a commercial drain pipe for all that confessional, blogging, chatting energy that now passes for communication and reflection today. Ironically Hunter S. Thompson gave a 1997 interview to The Atlantic Monthly wherein the ‘Godfather of Gonzo’, the most subjective and extreme of the literary non-fiction forms, expressed grave concerns about the explosion of opinion on the internet: “There is a line somewhere between democratizing journalism and every man a journalist,” Thompson said. “You can’t really believe what you read in the papers anyway, but there is at least some spectrum of reliability. Maybe it’s becoming like the TV talk shows or the tabloids where anything’s acceptable as long as it’s interesting.”
Author Anna Funder (Stasiland) is interested to hear of Thompson’s concerns. “It may be that we are now, hopefully, seeing the last dying gasps of post modernism in popular culture, this your-truth-is-my-truth idea where everything is relative,” she says. “And that’s related to the death throes of this other idea that everybody can do everything. That anyone can be a star attitude you get from MySpace. This democratization you get in popular culture with shows like So You Think You Can Dance? So you think you can sing? So you think you can be a journalist, so you can be a writer? It’s a phase Western culture is going through. But at the same time there’s a growing recognition of expertise in reaction to all that, I think. And also that a part of those abilities is a genuine gift – and there’s absolutely no democratizing that.”
Matthew Ricketson, the Media and Communications Editor at The Age and the editor of Best Australian Profiles (Black Inc) counters that the net is not simply a corrupting free-for-all. He talks about “a new mood for transparency being propelled by a similar transparency online. We have a nation of media watchers who are literate about the media and they have to tools to both check-up on us like you never could before - and tell us in public as well.”
John Dale, the Director for the Centre for New Writing at U.T.S. (and the author of the non-fiction works Huckstepp and Wild Life) is similarly skeptical about any proposed atmosphere of crisis in the literary non-fiction realm. “I don’t think there’s been a decline in standards. Since Capote the temptation to invent has always been there. The really dangerous push has been for publishers to ignore the warning signs and just see sales. But how many cases of deception among all the writers published are we actually seeing? Most writers are very well meaning, and publishers are becoming more vigilant because of the frauds, as are readers too.”
Dale also argues that non-fiction tends to lose its authentic tone when writers get carried away with their prose and start inventing things. The infamous graveyard scene in In Cold Blood is one of the few unconvincing moments in a stunningly well-researched book, just as Frey’s blow-hard machismo in A Million Little Pieces hinted he was someone you shouldn’t put your faith in. “I think the readers are actually more intelligent that people give them credit for,” Dale says. “Readers can certainly cotton on to whether they trust a writer or not.”
Malcolm Knox, who writes both fiction and non-fiction and is currently an investigative journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, adds that the state of literary non-fiction “would only be corrupt if publishers, book sellers and readers didn’t care when these things come out. The fact the books are generally withdrawn is evidence against that,” though the continued publication and sales of Frey’s work remains, for him, a distasteful exception. He compares Frey’s book to Gregory Robert’s Shantaram, which was published as a novel. “There’s a strong suggestion that he [Roberts] was the character in that book, but because anywhere between 20-50% has been made up he and his publisher rightly decided it should be published as fiction.”
In defence of publishers Knox also notes how hard it can be for them to detect a fraud. “Norma Khouri’s publishers copped a lot of flak for not realizing she was a fake. But she had the master criminal’s application to covering her tracks and making it very difficult to check her story. They couldn’t have found her out. The fact is that publishers take an awful lot on trust. And if you can concoct a good enough firewall between your publisher and the truth you can get away with it.”
It’s a somewhat backhanded defence but Matthew Ricketson points out that “the effort it takes to research and write a book tends to dissuade opportunists. It’s just too much hard work.” It’s nonetheless true that “what you might call the literary high jump bar comes down when a true story is being promised. If you looked at Forbidden Love as a novel it was melodramatic and not written that well.”
Funder agrees. “You can probably get away with worse writing if you say something is true. But I don’t want to read some bullshit artist who has written something that is not well done, not beautiful and not true as well! What’s the point?”
Writers like W.G. Sebald have meanwhile signaled how the feedback and overlap between fiction and non-fiction can be used to create great works that blur the memoir, fiction and the essay forms to create unexpected openings, even what might be another form of literature.
John Hughes (The Idea of Home; Fictional Essays) believes the “borderlands between fiction and non-fiction are a very interesting place to be. But this is also where it becomes very difficult with morality and ethics.” He compares what has been happening to literary non-fiction with “when the novel was born. Some of the most brilliant stuff ever written in the novel form occurred at that moment in history and yet so much rubbish came out as well. With a new genre there is just so much energy, so many possiblities.”
- Mark Mordue
* Story first published in Australian Author, Volume 40, Number 1, April 2008. Australian Author is the quarterly journal for the Australian Society of Authors.
+ + Colour photo of James Frey reading his latest book, a novel called Bright Shiny Morning, at Whisky a Go-Go in Los Angeles was taken by George Ducker, May 2008: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2008/05/band-plays-frey.html
Thursday, May 29, 2008
The streets at every intersection around Chowringee are rivered up to the knees and long with water. This is not a time for shoes.
A girl in a freshly ironed school tunic raises hers neatly above her head as she wades through sensibly. A cyclist, bare feet lifted to his handlebars, sluices across a shallow lake nearby, clean and fast and free as a bird. I see their pleasure as they look down into the heavens, how they loom across a liquid mirror. Rain turning girl into woman and man into child at play.
The lake that has formed along Sudder Street is breathing, sucking in drops of air. Circles appear and disappear, light parting shots of drizzle after last night’s storm. The torrential downpour has slowed Calcutta down this morning, shutting it off into smaller pieces, distinguishing the pockets of neighbourhood life that make this place a wild jigsaw of villages bucketed together into a makeshift metropolis.
In the aftermath of the deluge, I amble around my own little tourist block with less and less determination, always to another watery dead-end.
A black and yellow taxi scuttles up and down and around the same streets with me, testing the depths, gears cranking forwards and reverse, like a drunken beetle trying to escape the inevitable. There is nowhere to go this morning, nothing to do but wait.
Families are reestablishing themselves on the sidewalk. Hoarding their lives under green sheets of plastic, using raggy strips of material for rope, attaching the plastic to the eaves of closed shopfronts, even a weary looking rickshaw, then securing their newly improved roofing to the ground using bricks and stones, whatever is around. So this is home: shelter for a day.
A young woman with five children gestures towards me with her hands, but I shake my head. No small change today. She nods at me and gestures again carelessly, starts to laugh. No harm in trying. Underneath the plastic she is cooking something in a small pot that steams out of the shadows while her children sleep off the morning and she pulls an ever-falling veil back onto her face, hiding her smile again and again from me.
A young man in a cheap brown suit starts to make a sales pitch in my ear. ‘Very good quality sir. Excellent smoke.’
He flashes a small green parcel bullet bound in Glad Wrap. Gathers it back up into his sleeve again as if a hydraulic system is working his fingers invisibly from the cuff of his jacket. Quite the magician.
I shake my head at him but he won’t give up and starts hassling me all the way down the street. ‘The very best sir. Smoke. Excellent quality, I assure you sir!’
Finally I say ‘nahee!’ so sharply a few people look out from under their plastic homes to see what the fuss is all about. The young man stops and stares at me coldly, a who-the-fuck-do-you-think-you-are? look that makes me tremble. Everyone shrinks back under their coverings and evaporates. Suddenly there is just the two of us in the open, the bitty rain blotching his suit and adding to the aloneness between us.
I escape from the salesman down a side street that turns into an alley and yet another dead-end full of water. Some sodden rubbish stinks it out. This is the dark street I was staring into from my hotel window during last night’s power failure. There’s nothing here except silence. But in the human mania of India, silence moves on you with a distinct presence. It feels bad.
I backtrack my way out into the street again. The salesman is gone. A couple of boys are talking on the corner in Bengali. I point to the sky and smile. They nod, so I ask if it rains like this all the time in Calcutta? They freeze up and just smile back at me. Clearly they don’t understand what the hell I am saying, though one of them knows enough English to say, ‘Hey Shane Warne!’
I nod wearily to this perpetual Indian greeting. It that marks me out as an Australian tourist, forever associated with one of my country’s most famous cricketers, a man who openly detests India and is nonetheless revered across the sub-continent as a hero for his playing skill. His current piggish behaviour – demanding cans of baked beans be flown in for him rather than eat the local muck - makes me feel ashamed of where I am from. A perverse streak makes me feel like putting on an American accent just to escape the low burden of his fame.
A few rickshaw wallahs rap their bells on the wooden handles of their carts to get my attention. The unusually high chassis of their seat carriages makes them an effective means of transport in a flood. They know I have no way out of Sudder Street with my boots on. I’m an easy mark, a likely ride.
Again I say nahee, more happily this time. I’m surprised by the communication inside such exchanges, the humour. It’s a game.
A woman with a child in her arms is shouting at a man who is filling a jug from a street pump. She looks well dressed and walks on, speaking quickly to a parked taxi driver who leans out of his window and starts yelling abuse as well. The man at the pump is indifferent to their anger. He finishes his task and walks off with a huge cask of water pressing down over his shoulders.
What a strange crime in a flood: I can’t interpret it.
I find myself gravitating back to a coffee shop on the corner opposite the Fairlawn Hotel where Lisa and I are staying. She’s still asleep in our room, as if the cool smell of the rain has drugged her. I’ve been up and down all night, disturbed by the storm, writing, then waking at the crack of dawn to go wandering, well, not far at all.
As I take a bench and sit under the café awning, a few raindrops stroke me. Despite my run-in with the marijuana salesman, the morning is very tender.
I notice a sloppy European girl dressed in a sari is with a tight-looking young man, scalp shaved athletically. They exude a queer energy, one that makes you reluctant to breathe the air near them and catch whatever mood it is they relish. An erotic misanthropy, I suspect. Certain travellers can be so intense their physical being stains everything around them. How to escape them?
At the back of the café, an Indian businessman, or maybe just a well-dressed student, reads his newspaper quietly below an advertisement for Titanic. The film poster – an obviously new decoration – features Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet in a swoon that is Indianized like the swarthy, melodramatic images promoting Bombay musicals.
As Lisa and I travel the country and become aware of Titanic fever everywhere we go, these two actors emerge as fresh gods in the Indian landscape. Sitting in a packed cinema watching the film a few days later, we enjoy a crowd whose biggest laughs are reserved for jokes that involve class barriers and English table manners, such as the choice of knives and forks Leonardo struggles with over dinner. Despite the last gasps of the 20th Century, India’s memories of English colonialism are still fresh and influentially absurd, a thick paste over their own caste system. They laugh as if from inside another time when these things mattered and marked you. Perhaps here they still do.
The tight couple beside me pays up and departs and I am relieved to have the café and the street more or less to myself. A typically Western thought, when the street is so busy. I’m hardly alone here, just culturally distant. What makes me think of it as ‘mine’?
More people, bare foot or on bicycles, are now making their way through the floodwaters. Another taxi driver plunges his vehicle in and out of a narrow section of water, creating a tidal wave that laps over doorways and causes an explosion of words and raised, knotty fists. The driver quickly escapes around the next corner, honking his horn sluttishly.
One of the rickshaw wallahs from across the street hovers nearby, studying me. As I sip my steaming glass he finally approaches.
‘Good morning sir.’
‘It rains very much tonight in Calcutta sir.’
‘Last night? Yes. The lightning was amazing.’
‘Oh yes,’ he says. ‘Very good for business.’
He stands there before me, improbably optimistic in a grubby lunghi and a dirty, slightly torn singlet so sheer he must have been wearing it for years.
‘Tell me sir, how much is a glass of Nescafe in Australia?’
Here at the café I appear to be paying roughly US$ 0.40 for an espresso coffee. So I do the calculations, increasing them a little to emphasize how expensive it is for me to live back in Australia. In other words, to let him know I am not a rich man at home.
I finally say that the price is about five times what I am paying here, and go on to explain how this affects me in Sydney. But he is not interested in the excuses for my life. Merely astounded by the price of a cup of coffee. I suspect he already thinks the café is exploiting a ridiculous European indulgence as it is. The madness of the West when one can just drink chai!
He keeps staring at my glass like it might be a pot of gold, so I offer to buy him one. ‘No thank you, I cannot drink,’ he says, holding his stomach to indicate a vulnerability or illness. ‘Thank you for your kindness sir. But I was just curious to know this price.’
He jiggles his head side to side in that bobbing Indian way somewhere between a yes and a no. I look at how skinny he is. Too skinny to be pulling a rickshaw around Calcutta. I picture him straining every muscle to get people, sometimes very fat people and their luggage, from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’.
Yesterday I bargained a rickshaw wallah down from 80 to 60 rupees for a trip, the equivalent of quarrelling over a dollar. Once that was done Lisa and I climbed aboard and watched the rickshaw groan with our weight as the wallah lifted the handles to his waist. Bowing his head, he started to step forward, gaining momentum, sandals thudding down the road till we arrived at our destination some fifteen minutes later. By which time he was heaving with the need to breathe and so drenched in sweat I thought he might pass out. We gave him 100 rupees and ran away ashamed of ourselves for having beat down his asking price. Even our belated generosity made us feel like gluttons gorging ourselves on a false kindness.
Some Europeans won’t take the rickshaws at all in Calcutta – it’s too much like indentured slavery. But the awful truth is they are just denying the poor a few rupees they desperately need. And these are men who are willing to work, who have struggled hard at the bottom of the heap to get this most menial of jobs. Forget the beggars if your conscience is strained by the poverty round here, these guys will give you their backs to ride on. I can’t help but acknowledge some pride, or at least determination, in their efforts. Maybe it’s not so bad to let them rip you off a little.
My new friend stands quietly beside me looking out at the street and the sky. Three more rickshaw wallahs cross the giant puddle to join us, leaving their carts lined and covered by the white walls of the Fairlawn. Most of their customers are shut away inside, still snoring their arses off. Business will be slow for the time being.
The wallahs are equally friendly so I offer to buy them all coffee. But I soon realize there is not the same warmth in their communication - and that they are understandably milking me for whatever I might be willing to give. The Indian café proprietor gives them the evil eye, tolerating, just, their presence outside his door.
As they crowd in around me asking questions about Shane Warne (oh no, not him again) and who my favourite Indian cricketer is (I always say ‘Srinath’ because I love the sound of his name) they push my friend to the back of their huddle. Eventually he saunters away to his rickshaw and sits quietly inside it as the rain continues to sprinkle down. I see that they are much harder, physically and mentally, and it pains my heart to think of him as someone lower on the pecking order.
I start drinking my coffee quickly despite its scalding heat. I don’t like being king of the rickshaw wallahs this morning in a flooded Chowringee street. I am able to step outside this scene and look at it from across the way as if through the eyes of a floating stranger - and I do not like the man I see big-timing himself with a few cheap coffees. So I burn my tongue and refuse entreaties for ‘a tourist ride’ through their watery world. And I walk back to my hotel and a security that threatens to defeat me once more, grieving for a friend I barely know. Praying Lisa will be awake to hold me and help me feel human on a foreign morning. Hand bells jangling in the rain, calling to me in vague hope despite all my refusals. Nahee, nahee.
- Mark Mordue
* Story first published in Dastgah: Diary of a Headtrip.
+ Colour image of rickshaw and Ambassador taxi in Calcutta by Ran Chakrabarti
+ Black and white image of Calcutta in 1945 sourced from Brajeshwar
Monday, May 26, 2008
Vietnam invades me. I don't know how old I am exactly, just that I'm young and I haven't really seen this before: a soldier ecstatically killing people in a place that is not nearly so far away as it should feel. I'm only a kid and I am sick and frightened. The television is on.
It's no surprise in a story about war and how journalists negotiate it that I should find myself pulled back towards this moment in a reading of Michael Herr's magnificently sick Dispatches, diary notes from his time as a correspondent in Vietnam that resound with all the riffing energy of Jimi Hendrix playing 'The Star Spangled Banner'.
"You know how it is," Herr recalls, "you want to look and you don't want to look. I can remember the strange feelings I had when I was a kid looking at war photographs in Life, the ones that showed dead people or lots of dead lying close together in a field or a street, often touching, seeming to hold each other. Even when the picture was sharp and cleanly defined, something wasn't clear at all, something repressed that monitored the images and withheld their essential information. It may have legitimised my fascination, letting me look for as long as I wanted; I didn't have a language for it then, but I remember now the shame I felt, like looking at first porn, all the porn in the world."
This distress and shame in the face of such information serves as a base note for what is happening again today. For what Martin Amis once defined as the primal nature of our morality: a feeling that rises from the gut and won't go away.
The media is currently awash with metaphors comparing the situation in Iraq with the Vietnam War, likening the troubles in Fallujah to the Tet Offensive and the sordid torture scenes from Abu Ghraib prison to the My Lai massacre.
Various academics and pro-occupation exponents deplore such slovenly historical parallels. But there is one crucial element they cannot dispute: that Vietnam became a war of disenchantment with war, and that the media's part in propagating this disenchantment destroyed the will to continue. As has so-often been said, Vietnam was 'the first television war' and 'the war that was lost in the lounge room'. When it comes to the reporting from Iraq, it may well be that the media tide has already shifted the possibility of America and its allies sustaining their course.
For as another dirty war envelops an occupying force, and the idea of a frontline as we once understood it continues to dissolve - both within Iraq and internationally with the larger 'War on Terrorism' – notions like 'shock and awe' and the imperatives for a stable and democratic solution are no longer visible. The news is 'messy', the situation degenerate. We feel lost.
With such consistently troubling and confusing news comes renewed concern for war reporters and the kind of stories they tell.
The fact over a third of journalists killed across the world in the last year were in Iraq accentuates this focus. According to the committee to protect journalists (CPJ), 25 journalists have died there since March 2003, out of a total of 55 worldwide since the start of that year.
The CPJ recently announced the risks in Iraq are "unprecedented", calling it "the most dangerous place in the world to work as a journalist". This is especially the case for the independent reporters known as 'unilaterals', who first chose to work outside of the restrictions of being 'embedded' and continue to be active outside of a military safety net.
Clearly local insurgents and rebel forces no longer respect rules of war or the notion that journalists are non-combatants. Many see journalists as yet another example of Western infiltration and domination, someone to be wiped out or used as a bargaining chip. Their 'fixers', local Iraqi journalists, translators and drivers who work with them, are being murdered in 'shark attacks' and run even greater risks for far less reward, let alone story credit.
That many in Iraq have been wounded or killed by 'friendly fire' only adds to concerns. The International Press Institute (IPI) lists seven journalists killed by US forces in the conflict.
Nik Gowing from BBC International, in an article called 'Aiming to stop the story?' (written in the wake of the 2003 shelling of the Hotel Palestine that housed all the independent journalists in Baghdad) spoke of "a growing fear in our business that some governments...are sanctioning the active targeting of journalists in war zones in order to shut down what we are there to do."
Not everyone, however, feels quite so conspiratorial about rising mortality rates in the profession. In a story for The Age last year, the Canadian journalist Declan Hill spoke of the way Iraq had become like an overcrowded building site, with large numbers of journalists wandering around an unstable situation, under ever-increasing pressure to produce news, and lots of it.
The demands of cable channels like CNN (whose worldwide success was born out of the first Gulf War) and new competitors like Fox and MSNBC, alongside rapid advances in the instantaneousness nature of supporting information technology - faster, lighter satellite phones and laptops, digital cameras, night vision goggles and alike - fuels this pressure for "real time" war reporting and a highly competitive environment across the journalistic spectrum. News as entertainment, news as product, but, more rarely, news that has meaning - and news we genuinely care about. We are, simply, using up the world faster than we used to.
Independent English cameraman Max Stahl - who has won two international awards for the footage he took of the Dili massacre at Santa Cruz in 1991 and of people attempting to flee the UN compound in Dili in 1999 - speaks of the way technology and product-oriented attitudes are destroying journalistic depth. "I know for a fact in Afghanistan many of the reporters were reading back to their audiences what they had been told by offices back in London," he says. "The guy in the hillside in Afghanistan didn't know what was going on."
"But there is nothing else you can do if you set up this requirement that news must be instant, that news is defined as something that happened a moment ago. There is a kind of illusion that if you get it now then you are getting the truth; nothing could be further from the truth if you want to understand what has happened, you need to understand what goes on behind it, underneath it. For that you need time. In other words, the instant news machine is the enemy of truth and of real communications, but right now the instant is absolutely, oppressively, crushingly dominant."
Issues of censorship, particularly in America, only increase the indifference of such consumption patterns and homogenized views of war that fail to engage, let alone outrage, the public. No coffins of dead soldiers arriving at military bases to be shown on the American news, minimized use of extreme images of war violence or suffering. In this way a sterilized media is kept in check, as much through self-censorship as any external pressure. The grim sights in Fallujah and now Abu Ghraib serve as sudden, disillusioning punctuation.
Labouring through this analytically devalued climate on the Right and the Left, the author and war correspondent David Rieff (Susan Sontag's son) observes that, "A journalist's role is to puncture euphemisms and denounce the kind of thinking that is based on meaningless or obfuscatory language. I think writers and photographers should be as unconstructive as possible. I don't think we should become servants of our hopes either. We are their to be critical, to tell the truth insofar as one can know it."
Like Max Stahl, David Rieff's words leap from the pages of Bearing Witness - The Lives of War Correspondents and Photojournalists (Random House Australia) with bracing effect at a time when we know too much and yet nothing at all. Edited by Denise Leith, who teaches Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University, Bearing Witness adopts a first-person structure with conversational reflections from Stahl, Rieff, CNN's Peter Arnett, the ABC's Monica Attard, British Middle-East veteran Robert Fisk and Australian cameraman David Brill among others, offering up their experiences in the field along with insights into their profession and the personal costs of what they see.
Leith says she wanted "to look beyond the stories and pictures to the people who do these things and ask, 'Who are these people? Why do they do it? What is the cost?' It's about levels of bearing witness, really... There are just layers upon layers."
Time and again Vietnam emerges in Bearing Witness as a galvanizing moment for these journalists. Certainly, the American military was stung by what it saw as a media-propelled defeat in Vietnam. It was a major reason for the conduct of the secret or covert wars in Latin America - and for the continued isolation of the media during the First Gulf War, where it attempted to dazzle reporters and the public with aerial bombardments, exaggerated statistics and highly restricted on-the-ground reporting.
The shift in this current war to 'embedding' journalists with troops was not about an opening; rather it was more a strategic response to the internet and advanced communications, which forced a reconsideration of the media and how to control it.
Former journalist and media historian David McKnight, from the University of Technology, Sydney, speaks of the way "you can be captured by your sources, in this case the soldiers who defend, feed and sleep beside you."
"Against that," McKnight says, "any war still allows for a very old fashioned style of journalism: eye witness reporting of what happens in front of you without any filters. A good thing," he adds sardonically, "if you know what you are seeing. There's an old adage that war is a continuation of politics by other means. But in the piling up of event after event after event we start to ask what does it all mean? We see the war, but not the politics that lead up to or continue it."
It's no accident the most important revelations from the war have come from Seymour M. Hersh, an investigative reporter patiently working in Washington to uncover the crimes committed at Abu Ghraib. Hersh was also the man who brought the My Lai massacre in Vietnam to the attention of the American public. Hersh told PBS Radio that the current Bush administration, “don’t believe in bad information… not even bad news that can prevent a lot of trouble.” “It’s not that they’re cover-up artists,” he explained to PBS Radio, ‘they’re self-deception artists… and if you disagree you’re a traitor.”
This is why the independent journalist, the freelancer or 'unilateral' as they are lately called in Iraq, is so crucial to our interpretive and critical view of war, and of news from other forgotten fronts unsupported by network ratings and pack-like media attention.
In a sense what we are really witnessing in Iraq - and in the entire wake of September 11 - is the collapse of those divided notions of a First and Third World. It's certainly interesting to hear the American photographer James Nachtwey's thoughts as he clicked away at the falling towers of the World Trade Centre after covering so many wars in the Middle East and Africa. "This idea crystallised that I had been working on the same story all the time."
One of the great photographers of the era, Nachtwey has a crusading vision for his work as anti-war. Though it's impossible to dispute the power of his images, fellow photographer Chris Morris says: "I almost feel like you have got to say a prayer before you open up Jim Nachtwey's book Inferno. I find there is so much evil that comes out of it. I told Jim, 'I need some voodoo candle lights to keep safe.' It is a very heavy book. Do you think your mind can go through that book, the whole book, in one sitting?"
It may be that the search for truth still lies with the technology that is corrupting our news intake and fragmenting our ability to see the bigger picture. The rise of so much available and portable communications has allowed for dissenting individuals and news services to flourish, notably Al-Jazeera, the Fox network of the Arab world. Bloggers like Salam Pax who kept a web-diary of his experiences as a citizen during the attack on Baghdad have also attracted enormous interest.
In the end, however, it's the recognition of those secondary figures working alongside Western journalists that mark the next vital stage: the de-colonization of the media. Dith Pran is known to the world through a film like The Killing Fields, but there are many like him who with added training, support and due credit have much to tell us. In Bearing Witness the Sierra Leone journalist and documentary maker, Sorious Samura, asks why this is taking so long: "What are you guys so afraid of?"
- Mark Mordue
* This essay first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum 'The Essay' pages under the title 'A War with no frontline', May 22-23, 2004.
* Top image is of Phan Thị Kim Phúc: born 1963 (and now a Vietnamese-Canadian)she was the subject of one of the most famous photos from the Vietnam War. It shows her at about age nine running naked on the street after being severely burned on her back by a U.S.-coordinated napalm attack on 8th June, 1972. The photo was taken by AP photographer Nick Út.
Next black and white image is of AP photographer Huynh Thanh My covering a Vietnamese battalion pinned down in a Mekong Delta rice paddy about a month before he was killed in combat on 10 October 1965. RIP. Sourced from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/picture_gallery/05/in_pictures_the_vietnam_war_/html/4.stm
Other images freely available via internet sources and usual suspects.
Friday, May 16, 2008
Did ya come from outer space? Did ya kill that bird in the coop? Ooh there be a guitar like old Barney Kessell and something dirty going on, murder rag, going on and on. Sink the song in the blood, bring someone over, bring 'em over, play drums in your own bathroom. Tie rope round a friend's finger for oaths, rope round a neck, throw 'em off the pier. America. America! America someone has disappeared. America let's have a beer. Pretty girl in a bottle, you find her on a beach, she ain't got a soul you can reach. What this? Like exorcism music man, like at a wake: it a party or it a crying shame? Someone here got the spookies, that for sure! So one minute you're dancing, then it's go-slows for every man and his barking dog. Is he wearing a yellow shirt or hanging from inside it like a scarecrow in reverse? We don't know. Answer is in the harmonica. Secrets are in the freaky barn. Chain gang sign says "ghosts at work." Sins is on sand another place now. Sometimes I think they won't be comin' home at all. Boss says God. It's a curse! What's an old piano player to do? I lay down in the bones of his ear. Sounds like rain on an old tin roof fall. Then stomp. Like someone smashing them Japanese robots up. Maracas. And some crooning too. Crackles like an old vinyl record. Beefheart is in the grooves. Oh my voodoo. Drive an old Ford down a country road. 'Tend you're running to Puerto Rico too. Trees rustle, moon appears. It drips. A rooster crows three for you. Hear him slide his feet on wood. Scratch! Devil is grunting for tequila. Oh Lord. Bim bam bang, it's true. Woooooo hoooooooooo. Wooooooooooooooooooooo hooooooooooooooooooooooo. Wooooooooooooooooo hoooooooo00000oooooo000000000ooooo000000000000000.
- Mark Mordue
* First published at Neumu (USA)
Monday, May 5, 2008
When I think about rock 'n' roll and my life trying to write about it, my trying to get inside rock 'n' roll through words and stories, it seems to me all I ever cared about was this thing called "the truth," or being able to celebrate, activate, animate a moment, good or bad, to put it there on the page — rock 'n' roll as a lived experience.
To create a riot or a love story or a sadness or even a divide — the unplugged and distant as much as the switched-on, up-close and electrical — to remake the event and the encounter: these seemed to me to be the absolute goals.
So that when someone read my "stuff" they might get as shaken up or inspired or confused as I was in relation to these people and songs and places and happenings that were moving me.
Rock 'n' roll, yeah.
Not so long ago I was invited to talk to a group of tertiary-degree music students about rock 'n' roll writing. In the course of my trying to explain myself, and the alchemy I believe in, their teacher interrupted me and said, "Isn't it true most rock journalists are just frustrated musicians?"
I'd heard that one a million times before. It's the kind of statement that pisses you off when you're a rock journalist. It's meant to piss you off too, to put you in your place — to let you know your art form is essentially parasitic, second-rate, a pastiche based on things you can't do. I'm sure you know the clichés: "Those who can, do! Those who can't, write about it." "Action speaks louder than words." Blah blah blah…
Without thinking too much about it I turned to the music teacher and said, "Maybe that's true. But then I think most musicians are also just frustrated musicians too."
Over the years I've come to see there are times when there is a struggle between musicians and writers for what you might call the "soul" of rock 'n' roll.
Of course writing can't get at the communal heat, the group energy, the sheer physical decibels of rock 'n' roll. But it can work in other ways, in another form, and be just as vital and equal to the feelings and ideas rock 'n' roll represents. It can even be better. Sure.
In some ways, it is even possible to turn up the writing, which might be one of the signposts for what rock 'n' roll writing is: the volume level of the adjectives, the unhinged energy, the wild connections and amplification of emotions. In forms normally given over to the rationalistic and the analytical — in journalism and criticism — rock 'n' roll writing still has a place for love and poetry, for metaphysical associations that really do believe in taking you — along with the writer — that much higher than you might have been before.
Maybe something was sparked during my own early efforts to write poetry, mostly inspired by the lyrics of Marc Bolan of T-Rex. As a budding 13-year-old writer I reamed off efforts about white lines on mirrors, lounging in jet airplanes and drowning in swimming pools full of lions and naked women. I didn't really know what it was all about, but it sounded fantastic, and the influence of a drug-indulged, globe-hopping hippie-mystic English pop star definitely had its positive side. I dreamt. Ridiculously, wildly. But I dreamt.
When I was a teenager in the '70s, magazines like RAM (Rock Australia Magazine) and the NME (New Musical Express) from England further articulated the sounds and activities, the style and language of a culture completely alternative, or beyond where I was as a suburban boy in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia.
As much as through the sounds, and of course the lyrics that I studied so carefully, I fell deeper into music because of these magazines and the people who wrote for them. At the NME it was the writings of Paul Morley in particular who first awakened me to the fact a magazine article could have all the grace and intelligence of a fine short story or theatre piece.
In Australia, where I live, Andrew McMillan's stories in RAM got me interested in Tom Waits and Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac, which dovetailed, I would discover, with Bob Dylan's links with the Allen Ginsberg and the whole Beat scene, as well as French poets like Arthur Rimbaud, who, I saw, inspired Van Morrison as well as Dylan, and even someone as punk as Patti Smith.
Much later I realized there was an argument that the 19th-century Rimbaud was the first true punk, not '60s American garage bands, not singers like Richard Hell, not Johnny Rotten at all.
By this stage of my teens I was already heavily into Joseph Heller's Catch 22 and Something Happened; into the twists and shouts of Hamlet (surely Shakespeare's most rock 'n' roll play), as well as the comic-book existentialism of the Marvel super heroes; into actors like Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico, and books like Catcher in the Rye (which seemed to inspire all kinds of assassins, including Mark Chapman, the killer of John Lennon), as well as records like On the Beach and Tonight's the Night , in which Neil Young sang about bad heroin, Charles Manson and, funnily enough, how much rock critics pissed him off ("Walk On"); into Albert Camus (who later inspired The Cure to write "Killing An Arab"), sci-fi books, UFO cover-up conspiracy theories, vampire novels, Elvis Presley movies on midday TV, the cinematic obsession with Americana in most of Bernie Taupin's lyrics for prime-time Elton John; into David Bowie and how alien and drug-fucked he seemed when they screened the "Cracked Actor" doco on ABC (when he uttered the words "there's a fly in my milk" as he sat staring into a carton, clearly out of it, in the back of a limousine, he may as well been speaking some revolutionary form of Sanskrit to me) and how weirdly he danced to "Golden Years" on "Soul Train."
It all made sense to me; it all felt connected.
You could say by the time punk arrived, and what was later called "New Wave," I was ripe for further development. Punk's DIY spirit and the intellectual, arty pretensions of the New Wave — along with the rock magazines I was reading — fed a sense that I could actually get involved.
In magazine interviews this somewhat disparate movement's main stars, figures like Johnny Rotten (Sex Pistols), Paul Weller (The Jam), Joe Strummer (The Clash) and Howard Devoto (The Buzzcocks) in the UK, and Chris Bailey (The Saints), Nick Cave (The Birthday Party) and Sean Kelly (Models) here, spoke of influences that opened up a cultural history I'd never known of, often dark and certainly obscure. The Velvet Underground, the MC5 and The New York Dolls, Marxist politics, German expressionism film and art, William Faulkner, W.B. Yeats, Celine, reggae and French cultural theory all came tumbling through the hole they punched in my life.
Maybe there was also something in the fundamental ethos that this music wasn't entirely above or beyond me — in the brute democracies of punk, and the art-house exoticism and experimentation, even the uncomfortable superiority of New Wave that appealed to me as an adolescent boy. Whatever the answer to that mystery, I was launched as a writer.
I think there is a vaguely religious quality to all this, that writing about music and writing inspired by music leads to songs of innocence and experience on the page as much as between the ears. It's a devotional act, a real love thing, which is why it can be an angry and hateful and messy thing too. I often think the best rock 'n' roll magazines and writers have a reach-for-the-stars touch of anarchy about them, a sense of risk that inevitably involves failure as much as moments of white-light wonder. It depresses me to look at most rock 'n' roll magazines today by comparison: the Pepsi Cola cool they promote; the tame and stylized rebellion; the often dull, hypey and self-satisfied writing. The awful truth in today's over-designed media world is that if Hunter S. Thompson or Lester Bangs turned up today at the doors of Rolling Stone writing at their peak of their powers, they'd be turned away because they did not fit the format. Sorry guys, too passionate, too wild, too weird. I hope the zine scene and the Internet are the places where that honesty and talent can find a better voice.
An American rock critic like Lester Bangs understood the need for this energy, in columns and interviews and reviews, that rampaged through his relationship with rock 'n' roll and its music stars. Perhaps better than anyone, Bangs at his best (and Bangs was not always at his best) could evoke the actual feelings of listening to music, the way you heard it, in words. Alternatively, an English writer as fine as Nick Kent exuded a more elegant discipline in stories largely fascinated with the self-destructive and exiling impulses that would also exert their own pull upon him. Bangs would eventually die of his own excessive lifestyle and later be immortalized in "Almost Famous" as the mentor to the young lead character ("People like us aren't cool") while Nick Kent would find himself, for a brief moment, the singer of an unknown group called the Sex Pistols before Johnny Rotten got the job and he was unceremoniously booted out. That a sadness, a hurt, plagues both Bangs and Kent — who seems to have faded off the scene — for all their talent does not detract from just how good they are as writers. Nor does the fact that they tried to sing, to play. They just wanted to live it all.
Funnily enough a lot of the contemporary rock 'n' roll scene seems to be looking towards the literary world to enliven it. At events in London, performance poets like John Cooper Clarke and Linton Kwesi Johnson, both of whom emerged in the wake of punk and dub, have ranked alongside Will Self, Sadie Smith and Jarvis Cocker of Pulp in evenings of musical and literary dialogue in the past few years. Poetry, it seems, is becoming hip, cool. Apart from the longtime notable work of the Nuyorican Café scene in the U.S.A., there is now also the annual 215 Festival in Philadelphia, organized by Dave Eggers and his team from the McSweeney's Web site, featuring the likes of Zadie Smith, Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Ames alongside groups like They Might Be Giants.
This bridge-building between writers and musicians is hardly new. It's how Patti Smith emerged as an artist. It's what gave Dylan so much artistic credibility. But certainly since the advent of rock 'n' roll one can see an ongoing and developing body of work that details something larger, which we might call the cultural history of our rock 'n' roll lives, from On the Road to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Less Than Zero, The Ice Storm, Twelve, The Fight Club, He Died With a Felafel In His Hand… the list, like the beat, goes on!
So when it finally comes down to it, I sincerely believe French poetry and the Beats are just as important to modern rock 'n' roll as the blues and Woody Guthrie. The same way we couldn't have had the outburst of New Journalism in the 1960s and the radical subjectivity of so much literary non-fiction today without rock 'n' roll opening people's minds alongside it.
Artists like Brett Whiteley and Tracey Emin, poets like Allen Ginsberg and Robert Adamson, rock journalists like Lester Bangs and Nick Kent, are just as much a part of rock 'n' roll as Lou Reed or the Rolling Stones or even Eminem. That's the truly wild and mutable thing about rock 'n' roll — it's an energy that can't be held and chained up or robbed of its magic and dissent. It begs in the end for trouble and divinity and sex and whatever ruptures we can celebrate it with. It's escaped into our entire culture, our dreams, our unconscious life, and a musician or even a crap magazine doesn't own it, any more than a couple speeding out of town to the sounds of You Am I, M Ward and Kings of Leon on the radio.
- Mark Mordue
*First published at Neumu (USA) on November 29th, 2004.
Elmore Leonard’s voice arrives like curling smoke. It seems to drift down the phone line from Detroit and float around me in Sydney for quite a while. “I was in Australia a few years ago,” Leonard says then his story begins to unwind. Something about a book festival in Adelaide and landing in New Zealand first and “a journey around the coast” and what I think may have been confusion as to whether he and his then wife were ever in Australia at all.
By the end of it I am wondering if this vague gentleman is the same Elmore Leonard whose genre-buckling crime novels paved the way for filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and programs like The Sopranos?
Leonard sure doesn’t come at you a literary superstar. But that’s what he is: the acknowledged living master of the crime writing genre, as everyone from Tarantino to fellow authors like Martin Amis and George Pelecanos have acclaimed.
Apart from their popularity on the lending lists of American prison libraries (and best seller lists generally), Leonard’s books were selected for a 2006 ‘Hip Hop Literacy’ campaign to help encourage reading in high schools and colleges across the USA: all of which indicates he’s still pretty switched to the street on for an old white guy.
I’m expecting him to be a little more mouthy and ‘hard boiled’. Instead he just rolls along, exhibiting a generous propensity for conversation of almost any kind – if with a distinctly laconic aftertaste of a trademark humour in his writing that is equal parts underdog and deadpan bulls-eye.
Not counting his screenplays and short stories, Leonard has produced 43 novels in 54 years, rarely letting the quality slip below entertaining. Among them he has turned in at least ten crime genre classics, notably Swag (1976), City Primeval (1980), Stick (1983) La Brava (1983), Glitz (1985), Freaky Deaky (1988), Killshot (1989), Get Shorty (1990), Maximum Bob (1991), Pagan Babies (2000) and Tishimingo Blues (2002). Actually that’s eleven, with other books jostling for inclusion. His latest crime novel, Up in Honey’s Room came out late last year to mixed reviews. Leonard isn’t feeling battered. He’s half way into writing a new one.
82 years of age and still trucking on?
“Listen, I can’t believe it,” he drawls. “And still I think old people are older than me!”
Did he get any good books for his last birthday? “Nah, I mostly get t-shirts.” Besides, Leonard moans, “I must get five crime books a week sent to me, people asking me for blurbs.” He rarely reads them. He’s too busy writing his own. “I don’t know why,” he adds mournfully.
The truth is Leonard doesn’t read crime books much. “They’re all the same,” he says. He’d rather talk t-shirts. “I get some good ones from a journalist friend in New York every year for my birthday. Mike Lupica, he’s a [sports] columnist. He gets me ones with stuff on it like ‘The Dickens of Detroit’,” Leonard laughs. “Which means nothing!”
The way Leonard says ‘nothing’ is emphatic. As if any display of ego would be fatal to his literary M.O. Last October he released Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, most of which revolved around the axiom “If it sounds like writing, I cut it out”.
That’s why he gets uncomfortable when people call him the heir to Raymond Chandler. “I was never interested in Raymond Chandler. I like him, but I was never influenced by his writing. I didn’t care for all the similes and metaphors he used that I thought interrupted the story.”
Along with the sparseness of Ernest Hemingway – “all that white space on the page” – he cites Richard Bissell as more important. “In his books nobody was trying to be funny,” Leonard says, “but they were all funny because of the way they talked.”
It’s a distinction that balances Leonard’s work on the line between menace and comedy, something Tarantino took cues from in developing his film dialogue. If Leonard has ever attracted much criticism, it’s for always putting a bunch of interesting people together, seeing how they talk, and killing anyone who bores him. “I’m not known for my plotting,” he says, though the gear shifts in a Leonard story accelerate as smoothly as the Chevrolets he once wrote advertising copy about when he was a struggling writer in the 1950s. “I was always better at writing about their trucks then their sedans,” he responds drolly.
Along with the nick-name ‘Dutch’, ‘The Dickens of Detroit’ line has hung about because of his ability to conjure up so many memorable low-life characters from that city. He has also written a few books based in Miami and Oklahoma, and in the case of Get Shorty moved the action to Los Angeles with ‘Chili Palmer’, the loan shark character that John Travolta made famous.
Leonard has frequently discussed his mystification at the way Hollywood would buy up his books “and take everything out of them that was any good”. Things took a turn for the better with Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty (1995), QuentinTarantino’s Jackie Brown (released in 1997 and based on Rum Punch) and Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998). Get Shorty capitalized on Leonard’s encounters with Hollywood, mixing criminals with filmmakers. It was during the 1995 Adelaide trip Leonard tried telling me about that he received a phone call from an unhappy Dustin Hoffman (with whom Leonard had unsatisfactory dealings). Hoffman had heard he was ‘in’ Get Shorty and that it was not a favorable caricature. Leonard reputedly shot him down with the riposte, “What! You think you’re the only short actor in Hollywood?”
The author is generally disdainful of Hollywood’s “need to have the star redeem himself”. Leonard’s characters tend to be made of shadier materials like self interest, bad habits and bad luck. “I try to make them human,” he says. “Real – but with something appealing. I like the ones who have been into crime but are now honest, but you don’t know if they might revert. I like homicide cops too, not that there are that many in my books. I just like their deadpan humour.”
Lately Leonard’s early career as the pulp author of cowboy tales throughout the 1950s has also been getting a workout with the release of a compendium called The Complete Western Stories (“thick enough to stop a bullet from a Sharps rifle at ten metres,” the U.K.’s Times Literary Supplement reckoned) and a critically praised film version of his 1953 short story ‘3.10 to Yuma’ which stars Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. “It’s a good looking picture,” Leonard says. “But of course I did not understand the [changed] ending.”
In the meanwhile Killshot, one of Leonard’s best crime books, has been turned into a feature executive produced by Tarantino and directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love). It is due out any day now and stars – Leonard says with some satisfaction – “Mickey Rourke”.
Born in 1925, Leonard moved frequently around the American southwest before his family settled in Detroit, where he has pretty much stayed ever since. As a teenager the appeals of cars, sport and the gangster exploits (and demise) of figures like Bonnie and Clyde all had their influence. Educated at Jesuit high school, Leonard would sign up with the Navy in World War Two, but he never saw serious action. Instead he worked with a construction crew in the Admiralty Islands, “handing out beer” from the kitchen. He’d return to the University of Detroit and graduate in 1950 with a degree in English and Philosophy before moving into copy writing. It’s an eclectic starting resume.
He turned to writing cowboys stories because he liked Western movies and there was an obvious pulp magazine market. Talking about his career can sometimes veer into an accounting report on what he was paid per word per story since 1953. He has always been commercially driven, as well as fascinated by the nexus between books and movies. Unfortunately just as Hombre (1961) was coming out – now regarded as one of the greatest Western novels ever written – and Hollywood was purchasing the rights for a later Paul Newman film, the bottom was falling out of the genre as a glut of television shows flooded the market.
Leonard wouldn’t start on crime till the late 1960s. But it’s possible to see his nascent style emerging in the cowboy tales of The Complete Western Stories. His sense of wronged Indians and Mexicans also points to a little commented on but strongly anti-racist subtext in all his work. Leonard admits he hadn’t read of any of the stories in the 50 years since he’d written most of them. “I went through the galleys [for The Complete Western Stories] and I thought, ‘Jesus, these are not as bad as I thought they would be!’”
“I had studied Hemingway in order to learn how to write,” he says. “But I had a stiff and righteous sound, I hadn’t loosened up. I still had to develop my own voice. The humour had to get into it.”
Essentially that’s the trajectory The Complete Western Stories maps in Leonard’s mastering of character and dialogue, foundations that would set the tonal ground for modern crime writing. For all Leonard’s modesty, his westerns would similarly pave the way for film directors Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah in the ‘60s, whose wild mix of violence, humour and moral ambiguity was set free by Leonard’s earlier, if somewhat more muted vision in print.
Although we’re supposed to be talking about his collection of cowboy stories it’s a measure of Leonard’s focus on the next thing he is doing that he keeps rhapsodizing over his current manuscript (provisionally entitled Road Dogs) and forgets to promote Up in Honey’s Room at all.
“I’m bringing back Jack Foley from Out of Sight in the next one,” he tells me. “George Clooney liked his character in that book and did a good job of playing him in the movie, so I’m hoping he will like him in this one too. I’m also bringing back Dan Navarra from Riding the Rap, she’s a psychic. And Cundo Ray from La Brava! He danced go-go, stole a car, got shot… I had to get it [La Brava] off the shelf to see if he was still alive. He was shot three times in the chest and belly but no one said he was dead so I’ve revived him. They’re all there in the books, hell I might as well use them! And I like them!”
Whenever writing is the focus of our conversation something in Leonard’s voice accelerates and becomes boyish. In his more generally bemused and under-stated manner you meanwhile sense the survivor. Leonard’s first marriage ended in the mid ‘70s, around the same time he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and started hitting his stride as a great writer. His second wife Joan Shepard was a major influence on this renaissance, suggesting book titles, encouraging him to strengthen female characters and making editing suggestions. Her death from cancer in 1993 must have been a blow but Leonard happily remarried within a year to Christine Kent, a master gardener and French teacher twenty three years his junior.
He still writes his stories long hand, same as always. Will still use a typewriter to see how they look before someone (often one of his daughters) gets them on to a computer. He nonetheless worries he is slowing down. Back when he was trying to support a family of five children in the 1950s Leonard would be up at 5am to work on his cowboy stories before heading off to the advertising agency. Later as a full time writer he developed a 10 till 6 habit, Monday to Saturday.
“Yeah, a lot of those cowboy stories were written in the early morning. I can’t stick to that anymore,” he says. “Sometimes I don’t sit down till noon! It gets harder too to please myself too and keep rewriting. Sometimes I get a bit stiff. It’s important to keep the veins of humour flowing... I don’t want to repeat myself,” he says with surprising urgency. “But I do want to maintain a sound in my voice.”
- Mark Mordue
* This story has been published in The Weekend Australian Review, April 5-6, 2008 and Stop Smiling Online (USA) April 21, 2008. Image of Elmore Leonard at top of story sourced from http://mattzollerseitz.blogspot.com/2007/10/links-for-day-october-9th-2007.html