Recorded Friday, November 9, 2012 at Penn's Landing Caterers, Philadelphia, PA.
This Keynote Address was delivered by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler. His speech centered around the tools of narrative, and the shared language mechanics of literature and film. Comparing examples from Sam Peckinpah, Charles Dickens, Dashiell Hammett, The Bible (The Book of Judges), and The Matrix, Butler shows how the core concepts of slow-motion, establishing shots, visual movement, and montage are not just cinematic components, but the basic building blocks of storytelling. Butler concluded his address by expressing how "The intellectual electricity in this room is wonderful." He was dead-on. One of the things that makes NoirCon so wonderful is that it isn't just a writer's conference, or a gathering of fans, or a reading series, or an academic conference -- there's a little bit of each of those, but they add up to something much greater. Passion and community, as much as creativity and scholarship, form the crux of NoirCon. Its relatively small size (about 100 people), and welcoming and supportive atmosphere, mean that everyone gets to meet each other, and there's no pretensions to make anyone feel left out. It's a remarkably open atmosphere, and a great place to meet people and have genuine conversations.
I spent last weekend attending the 2012 Noircon, the biannual lovefest to all things noir devised and convened by Lou Boxer and Deen Kogan in Philadelphia.
I love this festival, which is far more intimate and writer-centric than most others I’ve attended. The participants largely form a congress of equals, and there is never a great divide between the contributions of the various panelists and the comments from the floor. It’s a smart group, widely read and not shy, and I always come away learning more that I could have imagined.
This year was particularly exceptional, with what at times seemed to be a continuous string of highlights. That said, one presentation stood out for me—the keynote talk by Robert Olen Butler.
Butler’s a gracious, witty, generous man with a knife-like body and a steel-trap mind. An astonishing talent, he’s written thirteen novels, six story collections, nine screenplays, an essential guide to writing (From Where You Dream—trust me, read it), and has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and a Guggenheim Fellowship in addition to an almost unseemly bundle of other awards and distinctions.
Why, I hear you ask, is such a literary hotshot slumming at Noircon?
Well that’s an interesting question, one ironically answered by Otto Penzler the day before Butler spoke. Otto explained how, after studying English and American Literature at the University of Michigan, he discovered crime fiction and promptly realized that its best practitioners owe apologies to no one.
Butler agrees, not just in theory. His most recent novel, The Hot Country, is a historical thriller set in Mexico in 1914, combining intrigue from both that country’s revolution and the worldwide cataclysm routinely known as World War I. The plan is for nine more novels in the series, all to be published by Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press.
But what Butler chose to discuss at Noircon was craft—specifically, the way in which fiction mimics the cinematic portrayal of events in the mind. (His remarks, I now know, were a distillation of his chapter, "Cinema of the Mind," within From Where You Dream.)
The American filmmaker D.W. Griffith, Butler informed us, once remarked that he owed everything he knew about cinematic technique to Charles Dickens—who died years before the advent of film.
By way of example, Butler turned to the following passage from Great Expectations, which appears shortly after the narrator, Pip, sets the stage, identifying himself and his family, then continues:
Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.
“Hold your noise!" cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. "Keep still, you little devil, or I'll cut your throat!"
A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.
"O! Don't cut my throat, sir," I pleaded in terror. "Pray don't do it, sir."
Butler called our attention to several techniques here, all of which have cinematic elements, and there are two particular points that stuck with me, involving the first and the third paragraphs.
Butler noted that the first paragraph serves as what in film is routinely called the establishment shot—setting the story in its initial setting. We start at a distance in a long shot then move in to the nettles of the churchyard and the headstones in arresting close-up, then look out across the landscape again, as though to put those deaths in perspective.
That perspective is not local. Dickens moves beyond the "low leaden line" of the river to : “the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing ... the sea.” A great many writers might leave that phrase out. Such an omission, he argued, would be a mistake, for the establishment shot doesn’t just lay out the scenery. This crucial phrase broadens not just the physical landscape but the thematic one, extending our view not just to the immediate environs but to the world at large, setting the stage for so much of the story to come, and hinting at its universality.
And then, with incredible boldness, Dickens snaps us back again to "the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry," the narrator himself, Pip. This movement in and out creates a marvelous sense of the larger savage world and the small scared soul that form the essential focus of the tale, and do it subtly with this implicit, cinematic movement in and out of the action.
Similarly, the third paragraph might readily find itself in many a writer’s Dead Darling file—another error. It’s not just the unnerving description of Magwitch we’d lose. Note the suspense that builds by separating “I’ll cut your throat” from “‘O! Don’t cut my throat, sir,’ I pleaded in terror.” Note also how that tension is created and how it builds. There are no independent verbs in the main clauses of any of the sentences, for the desired effect is one of attenuation—Pip staring in terror at the man emerging before him—and verbs in grammatical structure are the device for conveying movement in time. Omit them, and you're standing stock still.
The next example was one with which more of the crowd was familiar, the first few paragraphs from the second chapter Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon:
A telephone-bell rang in darkness. When it had rung three times bed-springs creaked, fingers fumbled on wood, something small and hard thudded on a carpeted floor, the springs creaked again, and a man’s voice said:
“Hello?...Yes, speaking…Dead?...Yes…Fifteen minutes. Thanks.”
A switch clicked and a white bowl hung on three gilded chains from the ceiling’s center filled the room with light. Spade, barefooted in green and white checked pajamas, sat on the side of his bed. He scowled at the phone on the table while his hands took from beside it a packet of brown papers and a sack of Bull Durham tobacco.
Cold steamy air blew in through two open windows, bringing with it half a dozen times a minute the Alcatraz foghorn’s dull moaning. A tinny alarm-clock, insecurely mounted on a corner of Duke’s Celebrated Criminal Cases of America—face down on the table—held its hands at five minutes past two.
Spade’s thick fingers made a cigarette with deliberate care, sitting a measured quantity of tan flakes down into the curved paper, spreading the flakes so that they lay equal at the ends with a slight depression in the middle, thumbs rolling the paper’s inner edge down and up under the outer edge as forefingers pressed it over, thumbs and fingers sliding to the paper cylinder’s ends to hold it even while tongue licked the flap, left forefinger and thumb pinching their end while right forefinger and thumb smoothed the damp seam, right forefinger and thumb twisting their end and lifting the other to Spade’s mouth.
He picked up the pigskin and nickel lighter that had fallen to the floor, manipulated it, and with the cigarette burning in the corner of his mouth stood up. He took off his pajamas. The smooth thickness of his arms, legs, and body, the sag of his big rounded shoulders, made his body like a bear’s. It was like a shaved bear’s: his chest was hairless. His skin was childishly soft and pink.
He scratched the back of his neck and began to dress. He put on a white union-suit, grey socks, black garters, and dark brown shoes. When he had fastened his shoes he picked up the telephone, called Graystone 4500, and ordered a taxicab. He put on a green-striped white shirt, a soft white collar, a green necktie, the grey suit he had worn that day, a loose tweed overcoat, and a dark grey hat. The street-door-bell rang as he stuffed tobacco, keys, and money in his pockets.
As with the Dickens example, the main focus again resided on the creation of a series of mental images that form a vivid film-like sequence, visually clear in our minds, even including camera angles—the ceiling light shot from below, followed by the close up of the rolling of the cigarette, both mimicking Spade’s own focus.
But there’s more than that, too. Once again, suspense gets created through the use of detail an impatient writer might discard—or never visualize to begin with. Spade rolls himself a smoke right after learning his partner, Miles Archer, has been killed. We don’t know as yet for sure that the two o’clock phone call concerned Archer, and it’s not until later we’ll learn Spade was sleeping with Archer’s wife. Instead we get this enigmatic, slow-motion rolling of a cigarette. Its intrusion into the scene piques our interest, precisely because it doesn’t quite fit. It suggests without stating outright that Spade has something serious on his mind, and yet in the casualness of the activity we also sense no great alarm. There’s even a hint of relief.
Note: Interestingly, the day before, Lawrence Block had remarked that Hammett, sensing that his literary success might well depend on his novels being made into films, deliberately limited his descriptions to only what could be seen and heard. This wasn’t, as many have believed, a nod to Hemingwayesque technique. It was a professional calculation.
In the Q&A that followed his talk, Butler noted that as a teacher in the Ph.D. program at Florida State, he encounters some of the best aspirants to literary fame to emerge from the various MFA programs across the country. And all too often, “They know the second through tenth most important things about writing, but they don’t know the first.” The first, he explained, was that stories are about yearning.
He suggested that genre writers often understand this point well—if they sometimes have an insufficient grasp of the next nine most important things about their craft—because genre often has the yearning built into the premise of the form. Crime fiction is driven by the search for justice, romance novels by the craving for love, science fiction by the need to humanize technology, etc.
His talk burned a nasty little hole in my brain, and as soon as I could I got my hands on a copy of From Where You Dream and I’ve been devouring it ever since.
So, Murderateros -- how does the cinema of the mind guide you in your writing? Do you take time to envision camera angles? Do you consider tempo in your descriptions? Do you play with quick alteration betweeen and long shots and close ups to create a dramatic effect between thematic or narrative extremes?
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There were a great many other excellent presentations at Noircon, including but not limited to:
—Well-deserved awards bestowed on Lawrence Block and Otto Penzler, with interviews of both men, giving Block a chance to, among other things, recount his days as a writer of lesbian romance novels, and Otto an opportunity to discuss how obscenely cheap real estate was when he bought his first store in Manhattan.
—A panel on music with SJ Rozan and John Wesley Harding (who writes crime fiction under the pen name Wesley Stace), complete with songs.
—A wickedly lurid, funny, and confessional true crime panel with Megan Abbott, Allison Gaylin, Wallace Stroby, and Dennis Tafoya.
—A blackly comic panel of cautionary tales from Hollywood featuring Lawrence Block, Duane Swierczynski, Anthony Bruno, and Ed Pettit.
As I said, I had a gas, and I fully intend to return in two years. Even without Lulu Lollipop.
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If you haven’t yet read it, pick it up. If you have, share it with a friend. (Or an enemy. I can live with that.)
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: In tribute to John Wesley Harding, who so graciously regaled us with song, here's "Ordinary Weekend," which he wrote after reading Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me. (In his performance for us, he remarked somewhat sheepishly he should have practiced, and ended up forgetting several verses, only to offer some of the best advice I've ever heard: He said years of performance had made him utterly un-selfconscious about fucking up. Not that anyone cared. We were enthralled):
"Five thousand years ago, Mayan prophets foretold that the Fourth World would come to an end after the 13th b'ak'tun. The First World ended with a rain of fire; the Second with the sinking of Atlantis; the Third with alien invasion. Our doomsday will be December 21, 2012. Who knows what wrath will end the Fourth World? In the meantime, retreat from almost certain oblivion with this Black Friday Brew. Deep and soulful, tinged with bitterness, despair, and a hint of life's sweetness, Black Friday Brew is the perfect companion down the street of no return. Guaranteed to help you find the moon in the gutter."
The Bookshop is a miracle that couldn't happen today. With only $2050 in his bank account, Penzler found a partner to buy a building behind Carnegie Hall for $177,000. Penzler's contribution to the down payment was $2000 -- the other $50 he kept to celebrate. His idea was that the first floor would be all paperbacks, the upstairs all hardcovers. All the publishers told him that readers didn't buy mysteries in expensive hardcover edition. History proved Penzler right, and his good judgement has kept him at the front of the field for many decades since.
The conversation was truly great, and I could have listened all day and night to Healy and Penzler. Among my favorite parts were when Penzler gave his list of favorite books. Here's what he listed:
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White
4/5s of Hammett ("The Dain Curse is silly.")
Fredric Brown ("The Night of the Jabberwock is so fascinating ... a tour de force.")
Ira Levin's A Kiss Before Dying
Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder series
Rober Crais ("Consistently wonderful.")
James Crumley's The Last Good Kiss ("The best Hardboiled novel.")
Charles McCarry ("The best American Espionage writer.")
"I love too much," Penzler said. "I could go on all day."
As Penzler's list shows, he's a man of great taste, and his publishing record is astonishing. I'm happy he won the award and very pleased that he was able to come out to NoirCon to speak.
A couple of years ago I went to a conference. I wrote about it here. Great fun.
Of course there was the $43 to get the urine out of Dave White's pants (totally my fault, but still).
And the hotel room that was around $200 a night. It's one of those where they tell you it's $120 conference rate or whatever but then there's tax and a separate room tax and then a separate room-with-a-door tax. I mean, it was Philly, so it wasn't like DC with its extra $87 for-the-hell-of-it tax, but it wasn't cheap.
And the conference registration fee, which was worth every penny.
I mean, you start adding up NoirCon and Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime and Murder in Muskego and one in Canada and one in Florida and Malice Domestic. You could go broke.
So maybe you have to choose. Or maybe you go to all of them and use your $150,000 advance to pay for hotels and bacontinis. I dunno.
I guess what I'm wondering is what many folks have asked me via email and in person.
Are you going? Why? Why not?
I guess it's become popular these past few years to say that people won't attend conferences because they can meet in the Gopher Chat Rooms and on MySpace, or whatever the kids are into now. You can twitter away all day chatting with people. You don't have to wait in line at a signing table to meet authors. You can shoot them a message online. Email them. MyFace chat. You can connect for free, without having to battle the "Bring Out Your Dead" piles of flesh at the Atlanta airport or $12 hotel bar bourbon.
Then you've got the folks who say that nothing beats hanging out in person and getting to know people.
But, as a man with fiscal responsibilities, I have to look at the ROI of something like a convention or conference.
I wouldn't give back my trip to NoirCon. Met some nice people there, as well as a couple of complete assholes.
So my thinking is that conventions and conferences are most certainly worth the time and the money -- if you choose what works best for you. For example, I doubt there's much overlap between NoirCon and Malice Domestic.
What do you get out of conferences that you don't get out of chatting online and emailing and MyFacing?
Do you have a favorite conference? One you'll never again attend? One you'll never miss? One you wish existed?
Speaking of authors I'll probably never meet -- Frank Wheeler, Jr has a new book out. Right now. Like now, folks. It's called THE WOWZER.
Fortunately, Jerry’s pretty good at his job. And since Tom Haskell runs the sheriff’s office and the drug-protection racket, Jerry doesn’t see much of a moral dilemma. That is, until he starts thinking about getting out of the trade, and then things get complicated fast. For starters, Jerry’s girl Maggie flees the state after learning about a disturbing diagnosis tucked inside Jerry’s psych report.
And now Sheriff Haskell is dragging his feet paying Jerry his cut of the drug money. Is Haskell just reluctant to lose his top muscle? Or is he plotting to take out the man who knows his dirtiest secrets? Fans of hardboiled, “country noir” fiction will love gnashing on Frank Wheeler’s violent and darkly comic debut, sneaking a glimpse into the mind of a killer whose inner monster is about to be unleashed.
Because I love you all, I will send to one of our commenting people an electronic version of this book. So, to the comments, folks.
What: NoirCon 2012: An extraordinary convention specializing in the noir genre in books, film, etc.
When: November 8th, 9th, 10th & 11th
Where: Society Hill Playhouse, 507 South 8thStreet, Philadelphia, PA 19107
Society Hill Playhouse will once again host the literary convention, NOIRCON 2012, in November 2012. Distinguished guest include David L. Goodis Recipient, Lawrence Block; Jay and Deen Kogan Award Recipient for Literary Excellence, Otto Penzler; and Keynote speaker, Robert Olen Butler.
The official NoirCon 2012 hotel is The Hilton Garden Inn located at 1100 Arch Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107, 215-923-0100 or www.hiltongardeninn.com. Room rate is $115/night. Mention NoirCon at the time of your reservation.
Registration fee is $250. The registration form can be found at www.societyhillplayhouse.org or at www.noircon.info. Attendance is limited to 200 participants.
For more information or questions please call 215-923-0210 or emai firstname.lastname@example.org.