Friday, July 31, 2009

Chapter One

Chapter 1 - the very short version We are introduced to our main character, Catherine Morland, through the auspices of our sassy narrator. Catherine is invited to go to Bath with her neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Allen.

Chapter 1

Oh, the opening lines. I particularly love the first two sentences:

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her.

These sentences do at least four things:

1. They introduce us to our heroine.
2. They introduce us to our narrator and her voice.
3. They briefly summarize what the first two paragraphs (in my editions, more than two full pages) are going to tell us, while
4. They introduce us to one of the things Austen's up to: skewering Gothic novels and "conduct novels" such as those written by Samuel Richardson, which tried to be morally instructive, while relating sensational and sometimes "horrid" tales (including abductions, abuse, rapes, etc.)

Popular conventions of Gothic novels (and, indeed, in quite a large number of 20th-century Regency romances) include a main character with one or more of the following attributes:

1. a dead mother (usually dead since the heroine's birth) or a living mother who is either completely clueless or cruel and manipulative;
2. a dead father, in which case she has a male guardian who is typically one or more of the following things: inattentive, abusive, or absent; or a living father who gets to be inattentive, cruel or absent in his own right;
3. a family somehow forced into poverty OR a dowry that's tied up somehow and the object of male attention;
4. a large number of "accomplishments": the ability to sew well, dance well, play the pianoforté well, sing well, draw and paint well, and maybe speak French;
5. a large number of physically attractive qualities: beautiful hair, skin, eyes, teeth, a "fine figure", etc.;
6. intelligence in the form of the ability to learn quickly and intuitively;
7. a "moral" education;
8. fine manners;
9. only a smattering of actual education, frequently obtained from conduct books and Elegant Extracts: Useful and Entertaining Passages in Poetry/Prose. I'm nearly certain there are more - chime in if you know these tropes!

Catherine, we are told, has almost none of them. She isn't musical, doesn't like "girl" things, preferred running around with the boys and playing baseball* to sewing and whatnot. Both parents are alive, sensible and kind, and she is comfortably what we today would call upper middle class. Her family's not wealthy, but they certainly aren't hurting; her father has land and several incomes. As a young child, she was sallow and stringy and not at all beautiful, and she only makes it to "almost pretty" in the present time.

*Sidenote: The Oxford English Dictionary records this as the earliest printed use of the word base ball, probably referring to the game known as "rounders", which has existed in England since Tudor times.

The proof of Catherine's education, it must be noted, smacks of Elegant Extracts all the way, and of Austen's sneering at such an education. (Austen herself was a prodigious reader from a young age.)

Almost without fail, what we're told Catherine learned (or took away from what she read) is misquoted or misapplied. Those of you who read along during Brush Up Your Shakespeare Month might recognize her first Shakespeare quote as being Iago's lines from Othello as he plots how to set Cassio up to seem like he's been shtupping Desdemona, and the third as Viola's (in drag as Cesario's) lines from Twelfth Night, who is relating a tragic story, not talking about what a young woman in love ought to look like.

That Austen wishes the reader to realize how Catherine has misconstrued these quotes (or allowed her understanding to be based on an extremely short abbreviation) is made clear by the brevity of them, as well as their context. In most cases, the original lines were written in iambic pentameter, yet many of them contain fewer than the ten requisite syllables to meet that requirement, so brief is Catherine's sampling.

The narrator - not truly Austen, although perhaps a version of her - ends the chapter by again sending up the conventions of Gothic and other sensational novels of the time: there's no peril, no hero. How on earth can Catherine be a heroine under these circumstances?

Thank heavens for Mr. and Mrs. Allen.

Tomorrow: Chapter 2.

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Interview with Matt Phelan

On Friday, July 24th I piled into my minivan and headed across the bridge to Philadelphia. My destination was the Bean Exchange, a coffee house located near 7th and Bainbridge Streets (for those with some knowledge of Philly, it's two blocks of South Street, and not particularly far from the Italian (or 9th Street) market). As anyone used to navigating through Old City can tell you, the streets in that part of town are particularly interesting. Some are still cobblestone, from when the streets were paved using the granite ballast blocks that came over on European ships during the early 19th century. Ships came over with lots of ballast and went back laden with furs and cotton and other American products – I first learned this particular detail when visiting Charleston, which was also a major port city, but it's true in Philly as well. In fact, when the British learned that the Americans were paving streets with the stones (and thereby deriving a benefit), they tried to charge them for it; they abandoned that when the Americans simply offered to let them take their ballast on back with them. But I digress. Besides the cobblestones, there are cars, bicycles, city buses and horse-drawn carriages. It's interesting to wend one's way through the melee.

Once I got to the Bean Exchange, I found the trip to be entirely worth it. First off, I had an excellent iced tea. Okay, I lie. First off, I saw Matt Phelan already in line for his iced coffee. I recognized him from my extraordinarily clever use of Google Images, where I found this photo on Jarrett Krosoczka's blog. Having seen Jarrett before (who can forget his video featuring Tomie de Paola?), and having met Adam Rex and Brian Biggs, I was able to cleverly deduce what Matt Phelan looks like, so I introduced myself, and then I got my excellent iced tea. Matt and I sat at one of the small tables on the sidewalk outside the coffee shop and started the interview. And here it is, in what I promise is an almost-faithful recreation. I have notes, you see, but no actual recording, so anything particularly witty was totally what was said, and anything lacking (should it exist) is transcription error. Also? Unless it's in quotes, you ought not to assume it's a direct quote. Also-also? I just now noticed that the lady in the sunglasses behind Matt is wondering what the hell we're up to. And she appears to be knitting a water bottle cozy or something.

KRF: So, Matt, I totally intended to bring along my copies of The Higher Power of Lucky and Where I Live, but I couldn't find them because I am disorganized.

Matt: "*laughs at me*"

KRF: How is working on illustrations for a novel different from other illustration work?

Matt: When I illustrate a novel, it's like living with the character for four months. In the case of (Eileen Spinelli's) Where I Live, I liked being in the world of the book. Initially it was only supposed to be 20-30 illustrations, but as it turned out, it expanded.

Matt said that he drew a few extra pictures at first, and then the editor asked for a few more here and there, and next thing they knew, it had expanded to an illustration every few pages.

KRF: Did you always know you wanted to be an artist? Whereupon I mentioned that a fair number of illustrators whom I've heard speak have seemed to know from a very early age that they were actually artists. Matt agreed that, to an extent he thought he took it more seriously as a child than a lot of other kids with crayons did, and that he thought he spent more time building the particular world of a picture and the story behind it than most other kids he knew did.

In college, Matt had an "unofficial double major" in film and theatre.

Matt: "I particularly liked finding a character and developing it. I really enjoyed rehearsals because of that - not so much performance."

KRF: Did the acting stuff help with illustrating?

Matt: Yes. I use what I learned in acting all the time: physicality, how a character moves, what the character is feeling when they're not talking. It helps me think of the character past the obvious. Rather than just illustrating the action described in the text, "I like to illustrate the moment after the conversation, not the act itself."

Matt said that in reading Illusion of Life, a book about Disney animation and animators, he learned that the Disney animators did that, too. One of their key questions when developing a character was "what is he thinking?" It's one of the things that Matt works to depict in his pictures - what a particular character may be thinking at any given point. (When you reach the panels below, I think you can see what an excellent job Matt does with that - check out Ernie, for instance.)

It was natural at this point in the interview that I'd ask about his latest project, the graphic novel that I've already raved about, The Storm in the Barn. So, I of course asked about his ukulele collection.

KRF: So, I took the virtual tour of your studio on your website, and I have to ask: What's with the ukulele collection? Do you play? (Note - no ukuleles are actually shown in the tour, but they are mentioned. So.)

Matt: "Yes, I do play. It's something to do while the paint is drying. It helps remove the temptation to 'fix' things." As Matt went on to note, pretty much any time an artist tries to "fix" something before the paint has dried, it results in a mistake. Considering he often works with watercolors, mistakes are not usually fixable, but require a do-over.

KRF: "Do you have a complete set of ukuleles?" Magically, Matt understood this question. The answer is that he does, indeed, have a complete set of ukuleles, from the baritone on up to his most recent acquisition, the sopranino. (You can watch someone who is not Matt play the theme to Mission Impossible on a sopranino ukulele here.) The baritone is essentially the top four strings on a regular guitar. He also has a tenor, concert and, I believe, more than one soprano ukulele. You can see most all of them being played by members of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain playing the theme to Shaft (I must say that I love their versions of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana and their medley involving Bach, "Fly Me to the Moon", the Theme from Love Story, "Hotel California" and more. But I digress.)

Matt: "I like it because there's nothing pretentious about the ukulele." When asked what he plays, Matt replied "20's standards and pop songs."

KRF: "Do you ever play 'Tiptoe Through the Tulips'?"

Matt: "I don't actually know that one yet." Whereupon Matt opined that Tiny Tim (audiovisuals straight ahead for the youngsters among my readership, and any of the "older" set who are, like me, nostalgic) may have annoyed a lot of people, but he was a real music historian who totally understood the pronunciations and articulations of the era that created the music he enjoyed playing. Here, see for yourselves:

So, that was Tiny Tim singing his trademark song on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. Like it? Love it? (I know I love it, but I am peculiar, as we all know.) Here's a link to a post on Matt's blog about his entry in a poster contest for a California ukulele festival, and his offer to work for payment in ukuleles. (No mention of whether a Martin is required, or whether a lesser brand would do.)

Getting back to The Storm in the Barn, which was, after all, why Matt agreed to meet for an interview in the first place. I truly wish you all could have sat at the table with us at least for this next bit, because I have to say that being able to riffle through the pages of the book in order to visually explore the particular points was invaluable. You shall have to employ your imagination, and I shall do my best to employ my ability to describe things.

KRF: In the author's note at the back of the book, you mention a developing interest in the Dust Bowl era spanning back at least 15 years. Would you say that's when this book started for you?

Matt: In a way, yes. I was interested in the history of that time period.

KRF: You mentioned earlier in our conversation that you'd studied film. Did that help you with your graphic novel?

Matt: "Definitely. . . . I wrote it out as a script first." Matt's goal was to write the dialogue like a movie script, and to describe the action or emotion depicted in each panel of the graphic novel in a way that would be accessible to his editor as a reader. "For an example of a script that's easy to read, look at William Goldman's script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which can be found in the back of his book, Adventures in the Screen Trade."

Since I'm about to give a demonstration similar to what occurred during our sit-down conversation, here's a two-page spread from Matt's wonderful book:

KRF: So, tell me what your script looked like? (And yes, I'm nearly certain I asked it in half-assed up-speak.)

Matt: (Now, this is where I tell you the sort of thing Matt told me, only he and I were looking at other spreads, so this is not IN ANY WAY an actual quote. Think of it as a "dramatic re-creation, if you will.)

Points to top left panel: Ernie says "Yes well, it was a trick of some sort. Something about Jack having some milk hidden in his jacket, then faking the whole thing with the rock."

Points to middle panel: Ernie bows his head, thinking.

Points to bottom left panel: Ernie waves his hand. "Anyhoo," he says!

Savvy? Long story short, Matt wrote out the entire graphic novel, panel by panel, in script form, then sent it to his editor. At that point, any major changes or edits were made. Matt thought it was important to have the editing done before he spent a year drawing the book, saying that he's heard tales of graphic novelists who start drawing at the outset, only to take a wrong turn somewhere along the line, which requires them to pitch a lot of finished work. His goal was to not do that.

AND THEN: Once the edited script came back, Matt did thumbnails of every panel in the book.
Looking at the two-page spread above, you can easily see that not all panels are created equal. What you can't see is that some panels take up a full page, and some pages have as many as nine panels on them (cleverly not set up precisely proportional, a la a windowpane, for reasons that Matt explained to me when I asked him about it, but which my notes on are CRAP so I shan't try to sort it for you hear. Suffice it to say that he is brilliant, and that keeping things slightly off-kilter puts the focus on what's in the panels without allowing the eye to skip past it.)

KRF: "Were the thumbnails all the same size?" (Once again, Matt magically understood my question, which was really "did the size of the thumbnails vary the way the panel sizes do in the finished text?")

Matt: "The thumbnails look pretty much like miniatures of the panels. The art is less finished, of course, but the thumbnails vary in size pretty much the same as the finished panels."

KRF: If you read my review, you know that for me, one of the most powerful images in the book was the red square in the rabbit scene. How hard was that particularly scene to draw?

Matt: "Drawing the rabbit scene took me about a week, and it really affected me. But I wanted to do it justice."

Research for the scene involved Matt watching and re-watching documentary footage of an actual jack-rabbit hunt during the Dust Bowl, and figuring out how to draw men with bats and metal bars who were engaged in vicious action. As Matt pointed out, "N.C. Wyeth reported that he used to ache at the end of a day of painting", particularly when painting something like a sword fight. We agreed that he was probably busy repeating various sword actions in order to capture the muscle tension and energy of the action in his painting. While Matt didn't cop to beating anything with a bat or bar during his painting, he did say that his muscles ached at the end of each day when working on the rabbit scene.

One of the things I admire about The Storm in the Barn is Matt's deft integration of "Jack" stories and references to the Oz books.

KRF: "Were the Jack stories and Oz references part of the story from the beginning, or something you integrated later?"

Matt: "The Jack stories were always part of it. That's one of the reasons Jack is named 'Jack.' I thought it would be interesting for the character to be hearing Jack stories, then finding himself in one of them. Since the story is set in Kansas, I naturally thought of Oz, so I named his sister Dorothy. I thought that a girl named Dorothy who lived in Kansas at that time would naturally be interested in the Oz stories, so having her read the books seemed natural."

Whereupon I praised Matt's knowledge of the Oz stories and confessed that I'd only read two, maybe three of the books as a kid, and Matt confessed that he'd pretty much done the same, but that plot summaries on Wikipedia drew his attention to Ozma of Oz because of its reference to a desert. Initially, Matt read the book "just to read it", but the references to the Deadly Desert turned out to be perfect for incorporation into The Storm in the Barn, which is set in Dust-Bowl Kansas where it hasn't rained for years. Add to that the benefit of the Oz books being subject to fair use, and text from Ozma found its way into Jack's story as well. Says Matt, "I just lucked out that it worked."

One thing that Matt pointed out about his illustrations, most all of which convey the dustiness of the time and place, is that the people are all essentially black and white, based on Matt's affinity for the photographs taken from that time period. Having mentioned it once already this post, I'll send you off to Wikipedia again for some Dust Bowl photos, if you're so inclined.

KRF: What's next?

Matt: "I just turned in a script for a second graphic novel with Candlewick called Around the World, based on three true stories of people at the end of the 19th century." Matt says he was inspired by Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days, but as it turned out, he also had books detailing the travels of three different individuals: Thomas Stevens, who travelled around the world on a bicycle; Nellie Bly, journalist, activist, and author; and
Joshua Slocum, who circumnavigated the earth in a 35-foot sloop. Since it will take him the better part of a year to draw it once the script and thumbnails are approved, it will likely be out in 2011. (Here's hoping!)

Folks in the Philadelphia area ought to look for Matt at Children's Book World in Haverford on October 11th. (I'll try to remind you as the event gets closer.)

Speed round: Now with actual Matt Phelan quotes throughout!

Cheese or chocolate? "Is there bread? I'm torn, based on my proximity to good cheese."

Coffee or tea? "Coffee"

Cats or dogs? "Cats"

Favorite color? "Various shades of green in all its permutations"

Favorite snack food? "Toast with jam"

Favorite ice cream? "Mint chocolate chip"

Water or soda? "Water!"

What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? "Octopus Project, The Best of the Shangri-Las, Dent May and His Magnificent Ukulele"

What's the last movie you memorized lines from? "Anchorman?"

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Brush Up Your Shakespeare Month - the Directory

For those of you who, like me, are geeks enjoy Tables of Contents and Indexes and things of those sort (I know I do), here is a complete directory of all 66 of the Brush Up Your Shakespeare Month posts, sorted by date.

June 1st:
Much Ado About Nothing, pt. 1

June 2nd:
Much Ado About Nothing, pt. 2
Much Ado About a Contest
Sonnet 87 ("Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing")

June 3rd:
Romeo and Juliet, pt. 1
Will's Will The contents of Shakespeare's will are discussed, including his bequest of his "second-best bed" to his wife.

June 4th:
Romeo and Juliet, pt. 2 "Oh hai Mr. Shakespeare: I see what u did thar."
Romeo and Juliet in the News I know a balcony in Verona that's available for weddings.
Romeo and Juliet, pt. 3 On the meaning of "wherefore" and the slipperiness of memory.

June 5th:
Sonnet 5 ("Those hours, that with gentle work did frame")
Romeo and Juliet on Film

June 6th:
Love's Labour's Lost, pt 1
Syllabus (of sorts) List of plays covered in first and second weeks of Brush Up Your Shakespeare Month

June 7th:
Love's Labour's Lost, pt 2 Discussion of the poetry within the play, the battle of the sexes, the Pageant of the Nine Worthies and more

June 8th:
Hamlet, pt. 1 Includes a comic-strip version of the play and my very own summary
Hamlet, pt. 2 – the quoteskimming post Famous quotes abound in this play.

June 9th:
Hamlet, pt. 3: Who's there? Discussion of masked roles and characters who hide
Hamlet, pt. 4: The Lady Doth Protest Too Much, Methinks On Ophelia and Gertrude

June 10th:
Hamlet, pt. 5: Polonius is a bad guy My pet theory.
Hamlet on film

June 11th:
Henry V, pt. 1: A conversation with my brother
Once more into the breach: a contest
Henry V: the short version

June 12th:
Sonnet 98 for Poetry Friday ("From you have I been absent in the spring")
Coming soon to Brush Up Your Shakespeare Month

June 13th:
Graphic Novel and Manga Versions of the Bard's plays Reviews of several different graphic novels, including manga, depicting Shakespeare's plays.
Filthy Shakespeare by Pauline Kiernan A book review.

June 14th:
Quoteskimming – from the plays we've looked at so far

June 15th:
Macbeth, pt. 1 An introduction to the play's history, and superstitions about it.
Macbeth, pt. 2: The shortest version and the short version My summaries of the play.

June 16th:
Macbeth, pt. 3 – Let's talk about themes and motifs
Sonnet 29 ("When in disgrace with Fortune's and men's eyes"); includes a performance of the poem by Matthew Macfadyen

June 17th:
Macbeth on film
Twelfth Night, or What You Will – an introduction Fun facts about the play, Twelfth Night
Twelfth Night, or What You Will, in brief My summary of the play.

June 18th:
Twelfth Night: the Malvolio problem Thoughts Malvolio's role(s) and what he represents
Filthy Shakespeare – a punny contest Win a copy of Filthy Shakespeare
Of Shakespeare and cows M and her friend convert famous quotes of the Bard to make them bovine

June 19th:
Sonnet 30 ("When to the sessions of sweet silent thought")
You say Illyria, I say delirium Thoughts on Viola, Orsino, Olivia, and Feste

June 20th:
Twelfth Night on Film

June 21st:
Richard III My summary of the play.

June 22nd:
Richard III on film
As You Like It – my favorite monologue "The Seven Ages of Man" speech, which begins "All the world's a stage . . . "
Under the Greenwood Tree A song from As You Like It.

June 23rd:
As You Like It in short(ish) form My summary of the play.

June 24th:
As You Like It film versions
Othello - pt. 1: an overview A short summary of the play's action.
Othello – pt. 2: a conversation with Tessa Gratton Featuring discussion of comparisons and contrasts between Macbeth and Othello, among other things
Eyes Like Stars by Lisa Mantchev My review of Lisa's forthcoming book, which is extremely Shakespeare-related

June 25th:
That CONTEST that thou mayest here behold The final contest of Brush Up Your Shakespeare Month
Othello – pt. 3: Iago, serving up dark and twisty since 1604 My thoughts on Iago

June 26th:
Sonnet 106 ("When in the chronicle of wasted time")
Sonnet 138 – My favorite Shakespeare sonnet at the moment ("When my love swears that she is made of truth")

June 27th:
King Lear, pt. 1 – the short form A summary of the play.

June 28th:
King Lear, pt. 2 – my thoughts, let me show you them Thoughts on how and why the play baffles audiences, what it means, the use of concealed identities, and the nature of Fortune.
King Lear, pt. 3 – why the play isn't necessarily sexist

June 29th:
A Midsummer Night's Dream, pt. 1 – the very short version Featuring a witty summary of the play by .
A Midsummer Night's Dream, pt. 2 – relationship to other works A brief discussion of some of the source materials from which various plot lines in A Midsummer Night's Dream were likely derived.
Shakespeare-related books for MG and YA readers My list of Shakespeare-related books for middle-grade and young adult readers.

June 30th:
Can you believe it's the 30th already? Housekeeping items and thoughts on continuing Shakespeare posts in the future
A Midsummer Night's Dream, pt. 3 – "The plays' the thing" Discussion of Shakespeare's use of "the play within a play" device
A Midsummer Night's Dream, pt. 4 – Some of my favorite dialogue
Full Fathom Five by William Shakespeare One of Ariel's songs from The Tempest

July 1st:
Biographies of the Bard An annotated list of some of the sources I looked at this month.

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