Tuesday, July 14, 2015

'Mockingbird' and a friend from long ago

With the release of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman today, it a good time to post this essay I read on KUT radio in Austin, Texas, on the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird's release in 2010. It's about my old friend Jennifer, loss and growing up. Give it a listen.

(On the air, they used the first paragraph as an intro):

I've been thinking a lot this week about the book To Kill a Mockingbird and my old friend Jennifer Manley. Jennifer was a pretty girl I met on the bus at Austin High School a million years ago. To Kill a Mockingbird was the book we all had to read in school. It was supposed to guide us down the path to adulthood.

The rest can be listened to here. Or you can read it here.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Joe Lansdale = modern-day Mark Twain

I interviewed Joe Lansdale for Kirkus Reviews about his great new novel. Here's how it starts:

Even if the prolific Joe Lansdale created an imaginary twin (don’t put it past him), the two combined probably wouldn’t have enough fingers and toes to count all of his published novels. So when he says Paradise Sky was the most fun one to write, take heed.

A fictionalized story of the real-life Nat Love, the picaresque tale follows its African-American protagonist on a jaunt through post-Civil War adventures that lead him into careers as a marksman nicknamed Deadwood Dick, a Buffalo soldier and a marshal, all the while being tailed by a racist miscreant bent on killing Love for a mostly imagined slight.

Lansdale had read the real Nat Love’s autobiography, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love Better Known in the Cattle Country as "Deadwood Dick" by Himself and saw an avenue to tell a tale often overlooked—African-American contributions to the Old West mythos. He’d pitched it as a novel as far back as the late ‘70s, but agents and editors then saw no audience for a story with black heroes.

Read the rest here.

Gary Cartwright's memoir dives into 'Mad Dog' days

My interview with Gary Cartwright is the cover story for this week's Austin Chronicle. This is how it begins:

Photo ©Joe M. O'Connell
How to write about the memoir of an iconic Texas scribe whose life has been way more interesting/wild/chaotic than yours? Use his words.

"On the road home to Brownwood in her green '74 Cadillac with the custom upholstery and the CB radio, clutching a pawn ticket, for her $3,000 mink, Candy Barr thought about biscuits. Biscuits made her think of fried chicken, which in turn suggested potato salad and corn. For as long as she could remember, in times of crisis and stress, Candy Barr always thought of groceries. It was a miracle she didn't look like a platinum pumpkin, but she didn't: even at 41, she still looked like a movie star."

Thus begins Gary Cartwright's 1976 Texas Monthly profile of the state's most notorious stripper, a story that in many ways cemented a style of inserting himself into the narrative. It's a technique that served him well in writing the memoir The Best I Recall (University of Texas Press, 272 pp., $27.95) When UT Press asked him to pen the book, he realized details of events from party days of yore were often hazy.

"Even though I wasn't the topic I was writing about, I wrote in first person a lot," Cartwright, now 80, said recently from his Central Austin home. "So I could go back and re-read stories from Texas Monthly and other magazines and get a timeline of what I'd done and when I'd done it. I put it together by going to school on myself."

Cartwright had a longstanding desire to meet Candy Barr going back to his Army discharge when a buddy and he showed up in Dallas at Abe Weinstein's Colony Club with a bottle of whiskey in the days pre-liquor-by-the-drink. They weren't (yet) drunk, but an overzealous cop threw them in jail anyway. Candy Barr had to wait.

Read the rest here.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Boxing is a metaphor for stuggle in Cuba memoir

I enjoyed interviewing Brin-Jonathan Butler about his memoir The Domino Diaries for Kirkus Reviews. Here's the opening:

Brin-Jonathan Butler owes his life to Mike Tyson.

Butler was a battered and bullied teen afraid to leave the front door of his house when he heard the enigmatic former heavyweight champ in a televised interview talk of also being bullied and of the famous authors he was reading while in prison for rape.

Never good at school, Butler raced out to buy five Tyson biographies and all of the novels Tyson had suggested. Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea was a revelation. In the years that followed Butler wrote half a million words in three novels he'd rather forget. He left his Vancouver home at 18 for Spain, then went to Cuba at 20. “I thought I had to lead a life worthy of writing about,” he says.

But first there was the Vancouver boxing gym a frightened Butler entered at age 15, all 5' 2” and 115 pounds of him. He'd never kissed a girl, but he'd soon learn to take a punch. “If you're out of shape or new, the ring is one of the loneliest places in the world,” Butler writes in his memoir The Domino Diaries. “The worst blow, for my money, is the first big one that hasn't hit you yet, it's just hanging there on the way to hitting you.”

Read the rest here.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Fact, fiction collide in 'Texas Rising'

My piece in today's Austin Chronicle:

©Joe O'Connell
David Marion Wilkinson never expected to be at this place. He's a novelist with a tilt toward the historical. A stubborn novelist. A novelist determined to carve out a long, successful career. But he's also got to eat, and suddenly Hollywood came calling. Soon his life was entangled with the History Channel's 10-hour miniseries Texas Rising, a sometimes historical, sometimes quite fictional account of the Lone Star State's battle for independence from Mexico, that premieres May 25.
Wilkinson's son Dean ended up in Los Angeles after graduation from the University of Texas. In the interconnected world where it matters whom you know, Dean played in a band with a guy who was dating the daughter of a producer. Soon Dean was working for her father's production company. One day he saw two of his father's books – the historical novel Not Between Brothers and the biography One Ranger – on the bookshelf. Wilkinson's son was told they were among a hundred books consulted as research for the show, which began with a focus on the formation of the Texas Rangers. But soon Wilkinson was called in as a historical consultant by Executive Producer Leslie Greif, famed as one of the creators of TV seriesWalker, Texas Ranger and producer of HC's mini-series Hatfields & McCoys. Greif was brash and confident, the cliche Hollywood producer who gets things done. Wilkinson soon found his role grow to include work on the script and ultimately a co-producer credit.
"The executive producer – a native of Los Angeles with a lifetime in the entertainment industry – and, I suppose, the original screenwriter, Ted Mann, laid out their 'vision' of the original story," Wilkinson says. "They had chosen, for instance, to accept the Emily West [Yellow Rose of Texas] legend in its original conception in the Fifties, even far exceeding that myth, totally beyond the slim historical record left behind by the real Emily West. My first job was as a historical consultant, and I argued passionately for them to reconsider their decision. When they refused, after I came on board as a screenwriter, I set my mind to take their story and their characters and run with them."
Read the rest here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

'Destination Unknown' examines biggest taboo

Somehow I became the death guy.

It happened after a penned the novel-in-stories Evacuation Plan, a book I never planned to write. I was chosen as part of a group of writers and artists to go into Hospice Austin's Christopher House to tell the story of the dying, their families and the people who work in and around this place of last days. I applied for the project because I was working on a mystery novel with a plot that dealt with death.

I didn't plan to write my novel, and I wonder if John H. Clark III set out to write Destination Unknown (it's free on Amazon as an ebook as I write this) or if it just forced itself on him. Either way he's the new death guy. "What happens to us when we die?" the cover blurb asks.

It's the big unanswerable. My novel took knocks for not having enough death in it. Clark's book faces the same challenge; it can't tell you how to die, but it does tell you everything you need to know about how we think about dying.

The consummate interviewer (he and I worked together years ago as newspaper reporters), when Clark has a question, he sets out to get the full answer. He interviewed more than 40 people for their takes on the final curtain. He talked to people from many different walks of life, many religious faiths or lack thereof. Some are hopeful, some are fearful. There are no easy answers in this book, and that's OK. Just taking time to think about the big questions is enough.

Clark professes to once being "scared to death of God." He flirted with organized religion at different points in his life, but still wrestles with the questions inherent in a Bible that is often full of cruelty. How do we reconcile this? Perhaps we just keep asking questions. "I have screwed up a lot of things, but I’ve also done a lot of things right," Clark says in the book's closing.

At Christopher House I met a 40ish guy full of anger. When he died, the nurses told me, he was holding on to this life, kicking and screaming, full of regrets. Clark's thoughtful book leaves me with this message: Live a life you can be proud of now before it's too late. You won't find happiness in making a whole lot of money (though I wouldn't recommend being poor either!) or drowning in kudos from others. You're going to have to live the life of a person whom you'd be proud to meet. The rest is gravy.

Get this book while it's still free or slap down some cash if you have it. It's full of important ideas told in a refreshingly honest way.

'American Crime' returns to Austin for second season

When I interviewed American Crime creator John Ridley for The Austin Chronicle prior to the show's 11-episode run on ABC, he hinted that a second season was possible and that it likely would lens in the Austin area as the first season did. Correct on both. 

(Read down for even more TV shooting in Austin....)

According to Deadline, both Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton will come back for season two, which will center on an entirely different crime. The first season was an ambitious telling of the impact of a double murder on the lives of the victims' and suspects' lives. Ratings weren't spectacular, but it received plenty of critical acclaim and is expected to garner award nominations for its deft handling of issues of racial and class divides in America.

"TV has overtaken film here of late," Gary Bond of the Austin Film Commission said of the welcome Austin film industry news. 'I like it. Steady work for our crew. The gift that keeps on giving."

Indeed, Robert Rodriguez's series From Dusk Till Dawn is shooting its second season around town, and HBO's The Leftovers relocated and is currently lensing its sophomore season to Austin. ABC's Shonda Rhimes pilot The Catch shot here recently and just got picked up to series. No word on if the series will shoot in Austin, but insiders say it is a distinct possibility.

The American Crime announcement also comes as the Texas Legislature hammers out just how much funding in the coming two years will go to the state's Moving Image Industry Incentive Program, which allocates bucks to attract films, television and video game production to the Lone Star State. Some of the official silliness has including attacks on actor Sean Penn's political views (he had a role in Terrence Malick's Oscar-nominated The Tree of Life, which shot in Texas five years ago) as an excuse to cut funding. Those in the know have said in recent years that current Texas incentives are more attractive to television productions than films, which often veer across the Texas border to Louisiana or New Mexico.

Ridley told me incentives were indeed a factor in bringing to the show to Texas. They'd also looked at Georgia and both Louisiana and New Mexico. A lot of that was the wide variety of locations, with Ridley praising the Hays County Courthouse in San Marcos in particular as a welcome find for the many judicial scenes. 

"There were other places where we could have done a good job, but Austin ended up being the right place," he said. "Beyond our headline cast there was a really, really deep group of actors that delivered."

Look for the series to shoot in July, when Texas temperatures soar. It's something Ridley told me he did not look forward to in a second season. "Everything else is wonderful, it’s a terrific environment, but the weather…," he said.