I didn't like Badlands.
Maybe that doesn't make me a bad film lover or anything, but it's hard to tell, with the way this movie's reputation has swelled over the years, if my lack of appreciation for it is a black mark on my own cinematic scoresheet. I'd never seen it, and not for any particular reason; I love a lot of movies from the '70s, quite a few of them, actually, and I enjoy several of Terrence Malick's movies, so you'd think I'd be the natural audience for Badlands. It wasn't even my idea to watch it; Felicia asked a couple of weeks ago if I'd seen it, and when I said I hadn't, she said, "Sounds really interesting. Let's watch it."
So we did, and...well, that's it. There were things I liked about it, I guess, but they were all absurdities, like how fast and recklessly Martin Sheen drives his stolen Cadillac when the two protagonists set out across the empty midwest plains. Seriously. He drives like he's on the smoothest pavement ever: a thousand miles an hour, fishtailing left and right, trying to hit every patch of brush or ambling cow he can. But the rest of the film felt rather disconnected for me, an interesting exercise that didn't quite pay off in the end. I'm almost certain that the character Sheen was portraying was meant to be a stunted child, not an adult.
This post isn't going anywhere, just in case you were wondering. Kind of like Sheen in that Cadillac.
It's becoming clear that, before too long, Felicia and I are going to have to ditch our current home for another one. We rent a place at the moment, the same place we moved to when we first arrived in Oregon back in 2012. It's 1,800 square feet, and that's a lot of space, unless you have the kind of creative interests that we both have. Our house currently shelters the two of us, our three-year-old and her bazillion toys, Felicia's mother, two dogs, two cats, and an apocalypse-prepper-sized stockpile of yarn. Our daughter has her own bedroom, and we have ours; before moving Felicia's mother in, Felicia and I shared the third bedroom as a sort of neutral creative zone, with her sewing and knitting tools occupying one half, and my art tables and books occupying the other half. Felicia eventually moved her materials into our garage, which is no longer a garage but a combination craft space and workout zone, and I packed up my writing-related things for an office a couple of miles away.
This afternoon Felicia and I spent time in our garage, rearranging things, hanging bicycles from the ceiling, etc., to make some room for a new workbench she purchased. I described the garage as a craft space because she's digging into the craft of jewelry-making, with its heavy machinery and laser guns and such. Before long our garage will be producing beautiful rings and amulets and such.
While kicking around out there, identifying some items to dispose of, we came across a couple of framed things I'd forgotten about. One is a photograph of Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey clutching each other in a scene from Contact. If that seems like a weird thing for me to have, then maybe it'll help if I explain that I used to display that film still alongside this:
That's the title page to the Contact film script, signed by the movie's cast and filmmakers. (From top left, moving down the page: Jena Malone, Matthew McConaughey, Robert Zemeckis, David Morse, Jodie Foster, and Larry King.) See? A little less weird now, right? I don't generally just frame movie stills on my wall, not unless they're really good ones or something.
As soon as we found them, I set them aside to bring to my writing office, where I'm at this evening, working on Limbs. (Fifteen hundred words added to the book tonight. Progress!)
Contact, as I may have mentioned before, was a major influence on both my personal life and on Eleanor. To explain why, I'd have to dig up a lot of things, so I'll leave it simple: Contact, and my subsequent discovery of so many of Carl Sagan's works, changed my own life in a pretty big way. I grew up, as I've definitely mentioned before, in a very Christian home (my father was and still is a pastor), and Contact's core battle between faith and science changed my perspective on a lot of things. I began writing Eleanor as a direct result of the entire experience, and my title character is even named, as you might have guessed, for Sagan's Eleanor Arroway, the main character of Contact.
That script page wasn't signed by Carl Sagan. And I didn't get it personally signed by anyone who did sign it. It's something I found online years ago and couldn't pass up. My guess is that it was signed by all involved after the film was made and released, by which time, of course, Sagan had already passed away. I do have something else that he signed, however:
This is from a first edition hardback copy of Contact that I keep in my writing office. It was a gift, years and years ago; again, not something I had the pleasure of having personally autographed. I genuinely love this novel, and I often pick it up and open it at random, and just read for awhile. I've read it so many times now that my reading copy is on the verge of falling apart, and I almost always find something new within the story that I'd missed before.
This post is just rambling all over the place, something I haven't done on a blog in years. Last week I spent some time prowling through the archives of my defunct blog, Deeplyshallow, to see what I was doing at this time five years ago, or ten. Each time I do I usually find myself utterly surprised to have written something that's really insightful and intelligent, especially when I realize I was all of twenty-four at the time, or I'm appalled by what a moron I was. I specifically went looking for old entries about Eleanor, and found hundreds. About fifty were character studies and sketches that I'd written as I got to know the character (and which I collected into a limited edition ebook last summer called The Eleanor Sketches). Many were my persistent reflections upon how difficult writing the novel was. In those days, the novel was very different from the one that I self-published last summer, or the one that Crown will publish in January. The story, in those days, was about a girl looking for...well, God. Eleanor had been in a coma, and had a sort of religious experience, and went searching for evidence of that same god in the real world. I was, in effect, writing my own confusing journey, albeit through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old girl.
One of those old posts contained this:
Eleanor, whose rebirth-of-sorts, after her traumatic accident, is forever accompanied with a sense of vacancy where her sense of wonder once resided. And her mother, Agnes, who for all of the months leading to Eleanor’s birth dreams of a bleak and angry approaching storm, one that will upon Eleanor’s birth swallow Agnes whole, and which threatens her joy at the arrival of her own child. Both women grapple with a discontent that cannot be shaken, and will slowly pull them apart, creating a gap that not even Eleanor’s father can bridge.
I take a bit of comfort in stumbling across things like this. That particular excerpt is from a blog entry I wrote in 2008, still years away from completing the novel, or from even realizing that I was writing the wrong story altogether. But that little excerpt contains clues to the story I would eventually tell, little references to the tension between Eleanor and her mother that I would explore more deeply years later.
Many people passed into and out of my life during the writing of that book. Felicia came into my life in 2007, five or six years after I'd started writing Eleanor, and was my champion as I completed the book—finally—last spring. And now we're watching a different thing entirely happen with the book. It was of course acquired by my publisher last fall, which was followed by a months-long editing process. In early March, my editor formally accepted the edited manuscript, meaning that the major edit was complete (though copyediting and proofreading remain). In the publishing world, 'acceptance' is a big milestone, I've learned. In most cases, or at least in mine, a book's advance is paid out in portions, each one accompanied by a milestone. There's the initial milestone, when the contract is signed, then the second milestone, when the manuscript is accepted, and the final milestone occurs upon publication. To celebrate that (as well as the appearance of "Quiet Town" in Lightspeed, and the announcement of Loosed Upon the World) our family went out for dinner. I snapped this to record the moment for posterity:
That's a seriously red photo, I'm noticing now.
Now, while I wait for the copyediting phase of Eleanor's road to publication to commence, I've turned my attention back to Limbs. Like Eleanor, this is a book that is, very deeply, about family. It's also about memories, and what happens to the things we forget. It's about death, about marriage, about secrets. Things that you might not expect, maybe, from a book that appears to be strictly about trees.
I'm taking a very different approach to writing this novel. I've never really had a process for writing my books, and Eleanor's final year of writing has convinced me that I ought to have one. If not a perfect one, then at least a constructive one. I'm allowing this first draft to be rough, and mostly about the plot, instead of striving for an Important Literary Work on the first go. (I tried that for years with Eleanor, which doomed me to rewrite the first 50,000 words again and again and again, over and over, as I looked for the book's voice, or for my own.) For the moment, it appears to be working. I don't know yet if what I'm writing is good, but more importantly, it doesn't have to be yet. Working on Eleanor, and particularly editing the book, taught me so much more about writing a novel than the last eighteen years of novel-writing did. (Let's check back in six months and see if I feel the same way about my progress on Limbs.)
Definitely a scattered blog entry this evening.
I'll leave you with something not altogether random: a self-portrait taken on my birthday in 2007, at the lodge where I spent a week and a half alone, working on Eleanor:
(You can always tell a well-posed self-portrait by how many appliances you manage to capture in the background.)
Sometimes I think back to times like the one captured in the photograph above. That year—the sixth year I'd been working on Eleanor—I tore the entire novel down to its core ideas, mapped the entire story again on note cards, rewrote and rebuilt it from scratch. In ten days I wrote fifty thousand words. How many of those words are in the novel that I eventually self-published, or in the version that's coming next year?
I think back to times like this one and wonder: If I could, would I thump that guy's ear and say, None of what you're writing right now matters! You're just going to throw it all away someday. Don't waste your time! Go do something productive, or something fun. But I wouldn't. It's fairly cliche to say so, but I really did have to write all of that garbage before I could write something worth reading.
I still have no idea what this blog post was supposed to be about.
Still didn't like Badlands, either.