Then a little while later he says, “If I write two pages a day – only two pages a day – I’ll write a novel in… ” I can see him doing the math in his head, “half a year.”
I nod. “It’s cool isn’t it?”
He shows me his new page(s) every night. He doesn’t usually show me his writing for school so this is a new thing for me. When I’ve ask to see his school work in the past he’s usually said, “No.” I’ve had to search for his stories and essays in his work folders after it’s been handed back to him and placed somewhere in his overstocked and overflowing backpack. Or my wife has had to tell me where it was. She knows. She almost always gets to read his work.
He’s finding real joy in putting his pencil to his page. He sits at the table at night staring out the window with his pencil eraser between his teeth, chewing and thinking. Every once in a while his pencil moves down and across the page leaving text behind. I sit with my back to him at my computer doing my version of the exact same thing with electronic text. I don’t chew on an eraser – though I’m not against it if it helps to think. I usually sip tea.
When he’s finished he wants me to read it, “Right now.”
He stands next to me and places his book in my lap. He points at it. “Now.” He watches while I read it, his hands together in front of him. He cracks his knuckles one after the other rolling from one finger and hand to the next. I laugh out loud when the story is funny. He smiles when I do that.
“Who should I kill off?” he asks, placing his hand on my shoulder.
“Let me finish reading,” I say.
“I’m not going to kill off anyone,” he says. “Maybe just have one of them lose a foot or a hand.”
“Shh,” I say.
“Read it,” he responds.
It reminds me of so many writer’s that I know, including myself. “Tell me what you think?” He asks and I have to tell him now. When I give my work to someone to read I want the same thing, now, only as an adult trying to show that I have impulse control, that I can be patient, that time is of no importance to me – I say instead, “When you get the chance.” Or worse, “There’s no rush.” What that really means is, “Now.” Trust me. it means, “Pick up the manuscript and start reading now. And don’t stop until you’ve finished. Because I want to know what you think – if it’s any good and I want to know now. I’ve been inside my own head for over a year, written 235 pages, and need to know it’s been worth the effort so I can write another 100-200 pages more of my epic – though it’s not really an epic I just think of it that way. And if you make me wait a day or a week or – God help you – a month to get back to me I’ll have to exist in silent scream torture mode as every day I check me email to see if you’ve sent me a note that says, “I’m done.” ”
My son is quiet while I read the rest of the page. He sits on the arm of my work-chair, reading over my shoulder. He asks me, what do I think, with raised eyebrows when I close the book and look up.
I saw John Carter of Mars today – three generations of men sitting in an imax theatre together, 3-D glasses on, my son between my father and me, his fingers in his ears (the sound was loud, loud, loud).
It is hard not to be disappointed about movies based on books that you love and I love the John Carter books in the way only a 13-year-old boy can. So, was I disappointed? No. Was it what I expected? Yes and no. What it fun? Yes, definitely a big yes.
The most surprising thing for me was the humanity I found in the main character, John Carter. ERB’s hero is more super hero – man of no age – always 40 – with little known past except for the civil war. This John Carter has a history of loss that surprised me in its authenticity. It made him different from my memory of him and yet in some ways better – more human.
The frame of the movie that so many critics complained about as incomprehensible I found to be well done. The screenwriter’s combined the beginnings of the first and second books – wonderful openings, both, and created something that worked as a frame. It was atmospheric and felt like the books in tone even if it was not exact in detail. The world building was wonderful, from the clothes (what there was) and flowing capes, to the body henna tattoos, to the design of the cities and airships. It all thundered and whispered and muscled its way across the screen, raising martian dusk in its wake.
My three favorite images from the film were the following:
1. Waking up on Barsoom. The desert and the silence and vastness was captured beautifully from the Arizona desert to the dry ocean bottoms of Mars. That was a cool moment and made me think, yes, these film-makers got it right.
2. The image of John Carter leaping into the center of a chasing green martian horde and fighting against all of them until he is buried by their numbers. This was an image right out of the Frazetta line drawings. This scene was intercut with flashback’s to John Carter’s past on earth and surprised me in its power.
3. Every moment a green martian was on the screen. They were too thin and wiry but grew on me as I forgot quickly they were CGI and saw them as real in a matter of moments. The facial expressions especially were so real.
These three things and the frame made the whole movie for me. There was sword fighting, airships, CGI to make my eyes pop. But there was also a good story – a love story – that survived the meshing of books in the screenplay. ERB was, if anything, a romantic at heart with princesses always being stolen away from their loves and heroes always following after them. His princesses were also tough, wielding weapons as ferociously as their mates. John Carter, the movie, got this right too. Dejah Thoris was perfect.
What was best, though, was having my son and my father with me, sharing smiles and losing ourselves in Barsoom only to be brought back to earth and the familiar presence of my father and my son. My son gave it thumbs up. So did my dad. It leaves me to of only one thing more – I hope there’ll be a John Carter II.
I have circled this story again and again in my life.
I see it.
I try to write about it.
I see it again.
John Carter comes out this Friday and I’m going to go see a morning or early matinee showing. I’m going to play hooky from my day job. I don’t know how I’m going to do this because I’m booked all day with meetings, but I will.
When I was 13 my best friend was hit by a train and lost his life. It was an accident but no one knows what happenned. No one – not even me. It is a mystery shrouded in a thunderstorm, black skies, and torrential rain.From that day on I picked up Edgar Rice Borroughs’ books from a local stationary store – Wientraubs – and started reading them. Before that moment I was a reader but not with the same intensity, the same desire to disappear that I had after my friend was killed. When I ran out of the titles that Wientraubs carried I went to Walden Books and BDalton. This was long before superstores had taken over the landscape. I read and read.
Reading didn’t bring my friend back, but over time it made the pain less. The first ERB I’d found was The Gods of Mars the second book in the John Carter series. At the time I didn’t know it was a series. All I saw was the incredible Frank Frazetta cover and knew I had to read it. It had been published originally in 1918 but this edition – from the 70’s – had Frazetta’s muscular artwork in line drawings all through the narrative.
The scene that captured my imagination – and captures it still – is the opening. John Carter raises his arms to the skies, looks up at the Red Planet and wishes for it to carry him across the cosmos.
And it does.
I’ve waited 37 years for a movie to come out telling this story and this Friday it appears in movie theaters near you and me.
I’ve got issues about John Carter. I circle around them, though not as much as I used to.
Issues make the writer.
They form the landscape of each of our own individual planets.
They fan the desire to help others transport to worlds they’ve never even dreamed of – even if the world is just like the one they exist in now.
Maybe I’ll see you there – in the darkness of the movie theatre.
If I do.
Why did you write a historical novel and why did you want to write about fencing? This is a question from Ms. Maddy Black’s 8th grade class last week.
The truth is I had no desire to write a historical novel. I had no idea I had one in me. As I realized my story was going to take place in the past I even fought against it. I knew I would not be able to rely on my contemporary point of view for the novel and since I’d never worked without that before I grew overwhelmed by the concept of a historical novel very quickly. How could I possibly speak with confidence about what it was like to live in 1936 or 1942? I wasn’t even alive back then. And the more research I did the more overwhelmed I became. It seemed in order to be an expert on the era, or to feel competence in my knowledge of the era I would have to read an incredible number of heavy, thick, dry-looking books and microfiche newspapers.
But at some point my curiosity and interest in the period overcame my anxiety and I began to write. I even became so involved in the research that I overdid it and had to cut about half of what I looked up, out. I even found I enjoyed the details of life from that time period. I found it fascinating.
Also, my protagonist, Cid Wymann, was 7 in 1936 so I either wrote about him in 1936 or wrote about a different character. I’ve written before about the vision I had of a 72-year-old Cid dueling with épées on the roof of the Chelsea Hotel so I won’t go into it here – but those were my constraints. I either wrote about him when he lived or I wrote about someone else. but no one else haunted me the way Cid did. That image wouldn’t go away.
Andrew Smith (author of Stick, The Marbury Lens, Ghost Medicine, and In the Path of Falling Objects) says his stories come through him, as if he was a medium for a story that had to be told. I see writing very much the same way. The characters gnaw at me. They worry me like a dog with a bone until I start to tell their story. Writing for me is then very much a journey to figure out who the protagonist is and what his story is that needs to be told.
And why fencing? I have been in love with swordplay since I was a kid, fenced since college, and taught stage combat to actors. I find I write about things that I do, that I feel a passion for. And so the man on the roof of the Chelsea hotel was fencing and his tale began when he was 7 – when Aldo Nadi, the greatest fencer of the 20th century, perhaps of all time, came to New York City and gave a fencing exhibition at The Plaza and on the same weekend that Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood premiered. I guess you could say I had not choice. Open Wounds would be a historical novel and there would be swordplay in it.
They wrote me letters.
My friend Leslie handed me a stuffed white envelope filled with them. They run from quarter page to full-page, are written in black pen and blue, with some in pencil. Some say Dear Joseph and some say Dear Joe, some Mr. Lunievicz and some Joseph Lunievicz. They all thank me for coming to their class so I’ll only share a few over the next couple of posts. I hope you find them as fascinating and wonderful as I do.
I really like the first chapter you wrote and with more understanding of the reason why you wrote this book I can say that I understand the haunted feeling you went through. I’ve known what you meant by vision it’s day dreaming of the haunted feeling. I want to know how you finished your book. I’ve only wrote so short of my small moment but I’ve only been speaking English for six year. I’m an Arabian girl. I want to make sure that one day I can be as creative as you are. And write abou the war in the Arabian war. Thank you. I hope I get to read your book some day.
Thank you:- K.
I told them about my vision of a 72-year-old Cid Wymann (protagonist of Open Wounds) on the roof of the Chelsea hotel dueling with sharps with a man whose face I couldn’t see – the idea which consciously began the Cid Wymann story. I am always amazed at what people hear when I talk – what sticks with them as important. I love this letter.
Dear Joseph Lunievicz,
Thank you so much for coming to our school! I had a lot of fun with the read aloud and fun facts of fencing. I am a writer as well, and finally I know how to actually publish a book! I get compositions notebooks and write many stories. My friends G. and J. are me “editors” and they write stories in notebooks as well. Thank you, so much for coming to our school and I hope you come again.
Your Truly, R.
PS I suck at spelling too.
Okay. So I told them all how bad at spelling I am and at least one student heard that and took heart that she could be a writer in spite of being spelling-challenged. She’s even got an editorial pack already in place. I can’t wait to read one of her stories.
I thank you for coming to 161 and telling us a little about your life and your book “Open Wounds”. I’m going to read that when I’m done reading my “Vampire Prince” so I thank you for coming and may god Bless you.
I went to Harlem today to visit a middle school’s eighth grade – PS/MS 161M, Don Pedro Albizu Campos School on 134th and Broadway. It’s right next to City College where I spent a year taking graduate classes in their creative writing masters program. I ran out of money after one year and never went back, but it was a good experience never-the-less. My friend Leslie set it up. She’s an Assistant Principal at the school and, after reading my book, accepted my offer to come in and talk about it with her eighth grade students.
The Library/Media Center was packed with 40 eighth graders, one teacher, and the Librarian/Media Center specialist. They had a smart board ready for me. I laid out my fencing weapons – a foil, a sabre, an épée, and a stage rapier, then talked for twenty minutes, read for twenty minutes and answered questions for ten.
Q&A can be tricky with eighth graders. There can be a lot of silence. These kids were great but I was worried at first as only one girl raised her hand. A boy and another girl seemed to raise their hands but then put them down. Perhaps it was peer pressure or maybe they were just stretching.
I called on the girl with her hand still assertively raised. Thank God she had a question. She opened a notebook she had with her, gazed down what seemed like a list of questions she had prepared, and asked the first of half a dozen that she would try to get to. I don’t remember what her first question was because right after I answered it five hands sprang into the air, then another few right after that. And the questions were good and they kept coming. Here’s a sampling of them:
- How does publishing work? How do you get a book published?
- Did your parents support you in trying to be a writer?
- When did you know that you wanted to be a writer and what made you come to that decision?
- What do you think it takes to be a writer?
- Are you working on anything new?
- Who was helpful to you along the way – like teachers or other people?
- Have you met famous authors since your book was published?
But this was the best. It wasn’t one of their questions. It was their answer to a question that I asked them. “Which would you rather do, take seven years to write a novel or one month? How many say seven years?”
Almost half the room raised their hands. I was in a bit of shock. I didn’t think any would.
“How many say one month?”
The other half raised their hands.
“Of those who said seven years, why did you say that?”
The girl who asked the first question raised her hand. “Because if it takes seven years then when I hand it in, it will be perfect.” Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
“And why one month?”
A boy raised his hand. “If it takes only one month then I’m writing really well, really fast.” Brilliant again.
I left three books with them – one for each class teacher and one for the library. How could I not? And whoever said middle school years were the lost years?